CHILDREN / Just counting their toes: Tony Mooney on new evidence of numeracy at five months old

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The Independent Culture
THERE was a time, not long ago, when parents were advised not to teach their children reading or simple arithmetic before they started school. Parental interference in the early process was seen as a complicating factor. Over the last 20 years, however, evidence has emerged that the mental abilities of babies and young children are far more advanced than previously thought. The most recent experiments, carried out by Dr Karen Wynn of the department of psychology at the University of Arizona, suggest that even very young babies are capable of simple arithmetical calculations.

Dr Wynn reported her findings in the journal Nature, and received much media attention in America. But on this side of the Atlantic, her work has gone largely unnoticed. Her study involved sitting 32 five-month-old babies one at a time in front of a changing display of Mickey Mouse figurines, and measuring their response when figurines were added or taken away.

Dr Wynn's first experiment involved the babies seeing a hand placing one figurine on a table. A small screen was raised in front of the table, and the babies then saw the same hand conspicuously add another figurine to the one behind the screen (1+1). In half the cases, one figurine was surreptitiously removed without the babies being able to see the action. In the other, the two figurines were left untouched. Then the screen was lowered so that the babies could once again see the display, and their responses were recorded on video.

It is well established that babies stare longer at unexpected events than at familiar ones. In the cases where the babies saw one figurine when there should have been two, they looked considerably longer at the display. This suggests that they had anticipated the correct number of figurines, and were surprised to see something different. Dr Wynn argued that the babies had to be doing some kind of mental arithmetic.

In the second experiment the babies were shown one figurine being removed from a pair (2-1), and either two or one figurines left when the screen was taken away. The 'incorrect' display again received more attention. It could be argued that in both these experiments the babies were merely expecting more or fewer objects as a result of what they had seen; they were not necessarily counting. However, when Dr Wynn repeated the 1+1 experiment, the babies stared longer when the removal of the screen revealed three figurines than when it revealed the expected two. These results confirmed that it was the numerical answer that was the crucial factor, not the expectation of more figurines.

So does all this mean that very young babies are capable of arithmetical reasoning? If so, is it a faculty that could be developed with the help of parents? 'It does have possible implications,' says Professor Peter Bryant, a psychologist at Oxford University. 'But it is a big step to conclude that babies have a full understanding of what they are doing.' In a commentary on Dr Wynn's work in Nature, he wrote that he agreed with the Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget that even if children can add or subtract, it does not mean they understand the process behind their thinking.

Even if they know that 4+3 adds up to 7, for instance, they do not automatically know that the inverse relationship is true - that 7-4 must equal 3. Piaget argued that children do not understand this until they are about eight years old. This claim has never been challenged, but Professor Bryant believes Dr Wynn's work makes it easier to devise experiments to test its validity.

Tony Mooney is head teacher of Rutlish School in the London Borough of Merton.