Cognitive development improves problem solving for rising 3rd graders

Parents of students who are wrapping up second grade rejoice! New research suggests that changes in the brain that occur between 2nd and 3rd grades lead to improved problem solving.

Researchers gave 2nd and 3rd graders both a simple math calculation task (addition, where one of the numbers is 1) and a more difficult calculation task (adding a number between 2 and 5 to a number between 2 and 9). That the third graders performed better on the calculation tasks isn’t surprising, but researchers also discovered that while the second graders used the same basic neurological function for both the simple and more difficult tasks, third graders showed distinct brain responses for the simple and more difficult calculations.

From a CNN blog post on the research:

The older children showed greater engagement in a brain system related to quantity representation, and in another related to working memory.

The third graders’ brains also showed greater “cross-talk,” or signal transfer, along pathways that deal with information between those two regions, and help with more efficient numerical problem solving.

How could the research direct educational planning and decisions? Study author Vinod Menon, neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine, quoted in the CNN blog post says “hopefully at some point we’ll be able to translate and use this information to examine children with dyscalculia and related learning disabilities.”

There’s not enough evidence for specifics yet, but the idea is that brain imaging could inform educational interventions for these children. Understanding the parts of the brain involved in children’s math skill development could lead to tutoring or other cognitive paradigms for children with learning disabilities, Menon said.

Menon’s research was published in the journal Neuroimage.

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