New Study Suggests There Are Better Ways to Teach Math in Early Education


Toddlers can do math — basic probability and other concepts — and this discovery could lead to new ways of teaching mathematics in early learning classrooms and beyond, a new study suggests.


The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) research showed that toddlers could figure out one strategy was more effective than another by watching an experiment, and then they could use that strategy when they did the experiment on their own.

“Our findings help explain how young children learn so quickly, even in an uncertain and imperfect world,” said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington’s I-LABS and co-author of the study. “Remarkably, they learn about causality even if the people they are watching make mistakes and are right some but not all of the time.”

In the experiment, toddlers watched a researcher put a block on a box that caused another machine to release a marble. Then they watched a researcher use a block with a different color and shape, and that block did not release a marble, according to the study. Roughly 70 percent of toddlers quickly learned which block was more successful in releasing a marble.


This intuitive grasp of statistics and weighing likelihoods of a cause-and-effect scenario show that toddlers don’t need to have to go through trial and error to learn – they can just watch what other people do.

Research summary media release, 8/25/14.

The results could reshape how schools teach math, beginning in the early years. That’s because it shows toddlers have an intuitive sense of statistics and don’t have to learn by trial and error, according to researchers. Instead, they can watch and learn.


The researchers hope that educators can use the findings to develop science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum that take advantage of young children’s ability to learn through observation using less-than-perfect causal relationships.

—I-LABS media release

Starting earlier and basing that work on intuitive thinking could help students later in school.

“The current way of teaching probabilities relies on fractions and decimals, and many children struggle to understand these concepts when they are introduced in grade school,” said Anna Waismeyer, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher at I-LABS. “Maybe it would be easier if we introduced these mathematical principles earlier and had our teaching mesh with or build on the intuitive ways that children think.”