Can working-memory training improve children's maths skills?

Can working-memory training improve children's maths skills?

by Dyani Lewis

"There's something about maths that's magic," says MICCN developmental neuroscientist Megan Spencer-Smith.

Spencer-Smith isn't referring to the impact of maths on the world around us, be it the building of the pyramids, the crunching of big data, or the exploration of the cosmos.

She's referring to its power to predict a child's performance now and in the future. A child's maths performance in primary school predicts their maths performance later on, and it's a litmus test for literacy, as well as future employment prospects and salary.

Could the appliance of neuroscience in the classroom help boost that performance?

Spencer-Smith, along with MICCN doctoral student Leona Pascoe, is attempting to answer that question with a brain-training app they are testing in schools in Australian cities and the outback.

The app, called Planet Hunt, was developed by Swedish not-for-profit Cognitive Enhancement Foundation of Stockholm, a company created by neuroscientists and education experts at the Karolinska Institute. Rather than simply helping kids practice maths, it targets key foundation skills for maths, including basic numeracy and, importantly, working memory.

Hold that thought

Working memory is the brain's ability to hold pieces of information in mind for a short period of time, and work with that information. It is essential for mental arithmetic and problem solving.

Whereas brain training's ability to stave off dementia or improve reasoning skills is controversial, the evidence that it improves working memory is strong, says Spencer-Smith.

"The next step is to find out whether improvements in working memory translate into improvement in other domains, such as maths, which you haven't trained" says Pascoe.

In Australia, one in five children aged 15 years fail to meet the international minimum standard for maths. In the rural communities dotted across Australia's outback, where school resources may be limited and Internet access patchy at best, the situation is even more dire – twice as many children in these communities fall below the minimum international standard.

As teachers grapple with the challenge, they are increasingly turning to computer programs and apps for solutions. But for most maths and numeracy apps on the market, there is a paucity of solid evidence they actually work.

Feasibility testing

To test Planet Hunt in the sorts of schools were it is most needed, Spencer-Smith and her team are trialling the app with the help of 6 to 12 year-olds at a small rural school in South Australia. At a school in metropolitan Melbourne, two grade one classes — six and seven year olds in the Australian system — are also taking part.

Unlike traditional remedial maths interventions that require one-on-one tutoring, teachers use Planet Hunt with the whole class. The app adapts to each student's ability to ensure everyone in class is challenged and rewarded so that they stay motivated for the entire program.

Students use the app each school day for eight weeks, and the Spencer-Smith team assess the students' working memory and maths at the beginning and end. In the larger Melbourne school, the children's abilities are also compared with students taking usual maths classes.

The team is assessing the feasibility of using the app in the classroom through teacher questionnaires and focus groups, and student participation rates.

If the results of the first trial are positive, says Spencer-Smith, her team hope to roll out Planet Hunt to schools across Australia for a larger study.

"We're trying to make sure every child has an opportunity to achieve their potential," she says.

Dr Dyani Lewis is a science writer based in Melbourne