The Enigma of Number: Why Children Find the Meanings of Even Small Number Words Hard to Learn and How We Can Help Them Do Better
Although number words are common in everyday speech, learning their meanings is an arduous, drawn-out process for most children, and the source of this delay has long been the subject of inquiry. Children begin by identifying the few small numerosities that can be named without counting, and this has prompted further debate over whether there is a specific, capacity-limited system for representing these small sets, or whether smaller and larger sets are both represented by the same system. Here we present a formal, computational analysis of number learning that offers a possible solution to both puzzles. This analysis indicates that once the environment and the representational demands of the task of learning to identify sets are taken into consideration, a continuous system for learning, representing and discriminating set-sizes can give rise to effective discontinuities in processing. At the same time, our simulations illustrate how typical prenominal linguistic constructions (“there are three balls”) structure information in a way that is largely unhelpful for discrimination learning, while suggesting that postnominal constructions (“balls, there are three”) will facilitate such learning. A training-experiment with three-year olds confirms these predictions, demonstrating that rapid, significant gains in numerical understanding and competence are possible given appropriately structured postnominal input. Our simulations and results reveal how discrimination learning tunes children’s systems for representing small sets, and how its capacity-limits result naturally out of a mixture of the learning environment and the increasingly complex task of discriminating and representing ever-larger number sets. They also explain why children benefit so little from the training that parents and educators usually provide. Given the efficacy of our intervention, the ease with which it can be implemented, and the large body of research showing how early numerical ability predicts later educational outcomes, this simple discovery may have far-reaching consequences.
from PLoS ONE