More Than “Just Numbers” – Math Success: The Cognitive Ingredients

More Than “Just Numbers” – Math Success: The Cognitive Ingredients

A friend came over the other night for a little wine and cheese.
Eventually (as so happens every once in a while with friends) the discussion turned to education in general, and then to her daughter in particular.

“Zoe” (a successful, energetic mother of two) started to talk about her youngest child who is have a tough time in her Grade 4 Math class.

“She (“Petra”) just doesn’t seem to get it ,” Zoe began to say, “…. and I’m worried because she’s starting to think that she’s dumb.”
Ugh … It’s bad enough when a child struggles in school – but when it starts to affect his/her self-esteem – well, that’s when things can get really “ugly”.
Now I know Petra … and she certainly doesn’t present as a child who would struggle with anything. Petra is in fact a chatty, upbeat, athletic, avid reader who has always enjoyed school.
I asked Zoe whether she had talked to her child’s teacher about this. When the answer was “no” I informed my friend that at least we knew where to start.

I told Zoe that the first step ought to be a conference with Petra’s teacher — and off of the top of my head I could think of three really good reasons as to why. First of all, teachers want to work in partnership with parents to ensure for school success – academic, social and emotional. Secondly, teachers are trained professionals. We want to use what we have learned (and what we are learning) to make sure that our children have positive and progressive experiences in our classrooms – our home for the year. Lastly, we are human. Yup … go figure: We don’t like to see any child struggle or feel badly. It breaks my heart and selfishly makes me feel as though I’m not good at what I do. (I am for example, always second guessing myself … it’s not a good feeling, but I have learned to accept this part of my personality and “roll with it”.)

I went on to explain to Zoe’s mum that Math is much more than “numbers & calculations”. There are heavy attention, memory, language, etc. components. Furthermore, I wanted her to understand the complexity of Math, and that while Petra may require additional support in some areas/strands of Math (e.g. Number Sense & Numeration) she may well excel in others (e.g. Geometry & Spatial Sense). Only time would tell.
In the meantime is was about time to speak with her teacher.

This got me thinking: What are some of the necessary cognitive abilities for learning in Math?
Here’s what I came up with. I am going to share this with Zoe today over date scones and tea!


Some of the Cognitive Abilities (& a couple of other things thrown in for good measure) Associated Understanding & Achieving Math Success in the Classroom:

1. Attention

2. All of the “Memories”:
Short Term & Longer Term Memory
Working Memory
Auditory Memory
Sensory Memory
Semantic Memory
Memory for Math Facts
Procedural Memory
Memory for Rules
Pattern Recognition

3. Language Skills (Math has a heavy language component):
Language processing
Verbal Expression
Understanding Vocabulary

4. Nonverbal Skills / Abstract & Spatial-Temporal Reasoning:
The ability to recognize sequential organization
The ability to recognize visual information and relationships
The ability to recognize spatial patterns and manipulate them mentally
The ability to recognize and remember visual sequences as well as cause and effect
Symbolic Thinking

…. & as with anything: The willingness to take risks

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