Counting is not the only way to add up

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Tuesday, 17 Aug 2010

For immediate release Tuesday August 17 2010

Counting is not the only way to add up

Counting is not the only way that children can solve arithmetic problems a mathematics conference in Melbourne will hear today.

In a presentation to the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) annual conference Robert Reeve, Associate Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, will describe how Indigenous children from remote areas of the Northern Territory were able to add successfully by reproducing a pattern from memory.

Reeve and his colleagues tested 32 children aged four to seven years: 13 Warlpiri-speaking children and 10 Anindilyakawa-speaking children from two remote areas in the Northern Territory and nine English-speaking children from Melbourne. 

“The Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa languages have very limited number vocabularies,” Professor Reeve explains. “Although these languages contain quantifiers such as few, many, a lot and several these are not relevant number or counting words since they don’t refer to exact numbers.”

All of the children in the study were asked to reproduce two groups of counter tokens placed on a mat by a researcher. Researchers were curious to find out how the Indigenous children would approach the problem when they were not familiar with the concept of counting.

Indigenous children tended to use a pattern strategy to solve the problem by remembering how the two groups of tokens appeared on the mat. When using a pattern strategy the Northern Territory children were more likely to solve the problem correctly. None of the Indigenous children used their fingers to help them with the task.

In contrast most of the children from Melbourne tackled the task by counting the number of tokens they saw on the mat and attempted to select the same amount. They almost never used a pattern strategy.

“The findings suggest that counting words are far from being necessary for exact arithmetic,” Reeve says. “Rather counting words offer one strategy among others and the pattern strategy appears effective for Indigenous children.”

“Previous research has shown that Indigenous Australians seem to be very good at remembering spatial patterns,” Professor Reeve explains. “Indigenous Australians rarely transmit information or skills by verbal instruction. Children are encouraged to learn by observation. This may mean that children acquire skills of remembering what they see earlier or better than non-indigenous children.”

ACER Research Conference 2010, Teaching Mathematics? Make it count, concludes today at the Crown Conference Centre, Melbourne.


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Louise Reynolds – ACER Corporate Communications
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