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Aug. 29, 2002 Press Contact: William Harms
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Babies are not as numerically gifted as previously reported, researchers find

Although many people would like to think that their babies are bright enough to count before their first birthday, and some child psychologists have suggested they can, that possibility is disputed by the results of a 10-year evaluation by leading scholars at the University of Chicago.

"Earlier claims of infants' quantitative skill are greatly exaggerated," said Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor of Psychology at Chicago, and an author of Quantitative Development in Infancy and Early Childhood. "Infants start with only a crude awareness of amount, which slowly evolves into an ability to distinguish between numbers of discrete objects."

Co-authors Huttenlocher, Susan Levine, Professor in Psychology, and Kelly S. Mix a professor at Indiana University carried out several studies that led to this conclusion. The so-called "natavist" view, which gained wide acceptance among developmental psychologists, contrasted significantly with an earlier view, by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, which demonstrated that children do not develop a quantitative competence until much later—after age 5.

In its review, the Chicago team found significant flaws in earlier research. "Neither the natavists nor Piaget was right," said Levine.

The researchers found that infants, contrary to natavist claims, do not have an innate ability to distinguish between discrete objects, nor can they recognize what is numerically equivalent. During the first months of life, they can, however, discriminate between "amount of stuff," said Levine, adding, "an infant can recognize quantity based on amount, but not on number." For instance, an infant can distinguish between 6 elephants and 6 ants—because the amount of 6 elephants is vastly different from the amount of 6 ants. But an infant could not distinguish between something that is the same in total amount, but not in number. For instance, Levine explained, an infant could not distinguish between one full chocolate bar vs. the twelve pieces it could be divided into.

The researchers also found that toddlers and pre-schoolers have far more advanced skills than previously believed by Piaget. Toddlers, between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years old, begin to move from the ability to distinguish amount to the ability to distinguish between numbers of discrete objects. As early as 3years, some children exhibit nonverbal math skills, comprehending quantity and performing simple addition and subtraction using groups of objects. "Children bring far more mathematical understanding to pre-school than parents and teachers realize," Levine said. "Because a pre-schoolers' verbal understanding of conventional math terms is limited, their ability to comprehend quantitative concepts is often overlooked."

Though the book was aimed at an academic audience, it has important lessons for parents readying their children for kindergarten, Huttenlocher said, because it "demonstrates that pre-schoolers have an abstract understanding of numerical knowledge, before they develop the language skills necessary to articulate that knowledge."

As a result of this finding, Huttenlocher urges parents to "teach children to label quantity." "When you're setting the table, count out the number of forks. One…Two.. Three. Children may understand quantity, but they need the language to begin conventional math learning."

The impetus for Quantitative Development, Huttenlocher says, was a general skepticism about natavist claims; in particular a finding that showed that 7-month-old infants could recognize numerical equivalence. For example, it was claimed that infants could recognize that a set of two apples is equivalent to the set of two honks because both contain two items. The Chicago researchers had in their own experiments found that even three year olds had trouble recognizing numerical equivalence across such diverse sets.

"It just didn't make sense," Huttenlocher said. The "honking" experiment was replicated at Chicago, and the results could not be confirmed. In each instance, the original results could not be confirmed. Identifying a possible flaw in earlier claims spurred Huttenlocher, Levine, and Mix to revisit further demonstrations of number awareness in infants, and, ultimately, to demonstrate that early quantitative sensitivity consisted of a sense of a sense of amount and not number.

Levine and Huttenlocher are researchers with the Center for Early Childhood Research, which receives funding through a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation.
Last modified at 09:39 AM CST on Tuesday, November 19, 2002.

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