Preschoolers Can Do Algebra, Psychologists Find « News From the Johns Hopkins University
In the study, children sat down individually with an examiner who introduced them to the two characters, each of whom had a cup filled with an unknown quantity of items. Children were told that each character’s cup would “magically” add more items to a pile of objects already sitting on a table. But children were not allowed to see the number of objects in either cup: they only saw the pile before it was added to, and after, so they had to infer approximately how many objects Gator’s cup and Cheetah’s cup contained.
At the end, the examiner pretended that she had mixed up the cups, and asked the children — after showing them what was in one of the cups - to help her figure out whose cup it was. The majority of the children knew whose cup it was, a finding that revealed for the researchers that the pint-sized participants had been solving for a missing quantity, which is the essence of doing basic algebra.
“What was in the cup was the x and y variable, and children nailed it,” said Feigenson, director of Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Child Development. “Gator’s cup was the x variable and Cheetah’s cup was the y variable. We found out that young children are very, very good at this. It appears that they are harnessing their gut level number sense to solve this task.”
If this kind of basic algebraic reasoning is so simple and natural for 4, 5 and 6-year-olds, the question remains why it is so difficult for teens and others.