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Peek into brain shows how kids learn math

WASHINGTON--At some point, children quit counting your fingers and just know the answer. Now scientists have put youngsters into brain scanners to find out why, and watched how the brain reorganizes itself as kids learn math.

The take-home advice: drilling your kids on simple addition and multiplication may pay off.

“Experience really does matter,” said Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the research.

Healthy children start making that switch between counting to what's called fact retrieval when they're 8 years old to 9 years old, when they're still working on fundamental addition and subtraction. How well kids make that shift to memory-based problem-solving is known to predict their ultimate math achievement.

Those who fall behind “are impairing or slowing down their math learning later on,” Mann Koepke said.

But why do some kids make the transition easier than others?

To start finding out, Stanford University researchers first peeked into the brains of 28 children as they solved a series of simple addition problems inside a brain-scanning MRI machine.

No scribbling out the answer: The 7- to 9-year-olds saw a calculation — three plus four equals seven, for example — flash on a screen and pushed a button to say if the answer was right or wrong. Scientists recorded how quickly they responded and what regions of their brain became active as they did.

In a separate session, they also tested the kids face to face, watching if they moved their lips or counted on their fingers, for comparison with the brain data.

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