Children Have an Inbuilt Ability to Learn Basic Arithmetic Operations Including Division

It has always been believed that children only begin to learn the basic arithmetic operations, especially division when they are in a classroom. However, several pieces of research done in the past have shown that this belief should be swept under the carpet, as children already possess the natural ability to perform division and other basic arithmetic operations at a younger age, even before they begin formal education.



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The approximate number system (ANS) theory laid the foundation for the numerous research that revealed this fact. The theory explains that people (including our primate brothers – the apes) possess a spontaneous ability to compare objects, without the need for symbols or signs, from an early age. An instance is the fact that a child can tell that a group of ten dots is larger than a group of three dots, even if the latter is drawn in a way that it occupies a larger space on the page. This ability gets better as the child gets into adulthood.

The Study

Researchers currently studying this theory – ANS – are not only interested in finding what activity of the brain makes this possible but also, how it can be applied in a classroom learning environment to make students better at solving math problems. Since this theory applies to every human, finding ways to leverage it to build the learning abilities of children, may help conquer the common fear many children have for the “almighty maths” as a subject.

The research led by Dr. Elizabeth Brannon of the Developing Minds Lab at the University of Pennsylvania involved several experiments that tested the mathematical ability of 6- to 9-year-old children, and high school students. They were made to carry out divisional operations using symbols, and another time, without the use of symbols. According to Dr. Brannon, they carried out these experiments, not only to prove the theory but to determine how they could employ it to discover how to improve the mathematical learning experience among the students. The results showed that children can comfortably carry out divisions involving symbols even before they are engaged in formal education activities.

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In another experiment, involving children and adults, they were all made to solve a simple maths problem (division) on a computer by watching dots (representing the dividend) on the screen, fall on the petals of a flower (representing the divisor). The task was to decide the larger quantity – on the left side of the screen were dots among the flower’s petals, and on the right, was a single petal with a new quantity of dots. The results showed that many children picked the right answer more than 75% of the time, and adults picked the right answer nearly 90% of the time.

They found that even children who could not answer written questions on divisional operations did well in the flower approximate division task. This made them conclude that even before formal learning in a classroom, humans possess an “approximate number sense” controlled by the brain, and it is this number sense that is improved when formal learning begins.

Clinical significance

The majority of students do not have a flair for mathematics; they have always seen math as a subject they can never pass, most likely because they do not understand its concepts. However, this study has proven that mathematical skill is natural and inbuilt in every individual, and therefore, it should not appear difficult when learning it in a formal setting. Instead, it should be appreciated and learned with an open mind since its concept is inbuilt in humans.

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There is a chance that students may finally come to better understand and appreciate mathematical operations which they come across in their formal learning environment, since solving a math problem is already inbuilt in humans right from an early age.


Young Children Intuitively Divide Before They Recognize the Division Symbol



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