Many of us tend to align ourselves with either numbers or words. We’re either math brains or we’re reading brains.

In college, my fellow English majors joked about how none of us could long-divide to save our lives, while our friends in engineering groaned about the fact that Lit 101 was a graduation requirement.

But it turns out that about half the genes that influence a child’s math ability also seem to influence reading ability, according to a study published in the journal *Nature Communications*.

“You’d think that cognitively what’s going on with math and reading is very different,” says Robert Plomin, a behavioral geneticist at Kings College London, and one of the authors of the study. “Actually, people who are good at reading, you can bet, are pretty good at math too.”

The researchers looked at 2,800 pairs of 12-year-old British twins who were part of the larger Twins Early Development Study. Some pairs were very nearly genetically identical; the other pairs were fraternal twins, meaning they are the same age and shared a quite similar early environment, but are no more genetically similar than other siblings.

The scientists assessed each child’s math and reading skills based on standardized tests. To gauge how genes influenced the students’ aptitude, the researchers compared the test results of twin siblings as well as the results of unrelated children.

The researchers also analyzed the participants’ DNA, in hopes of turning up a particular gene or set of genes shared by people with high math or reading ability — genes that were, perhaps, missing in people with low abilities. (Some earlier, smaller studies had suggested such highly influential gene variants might exist). But no particular gene or sets of genes emerged. That may be because a lot — maybe thousands — of genes may be involved in helping to shape these abilities, Plomin says.

What the study did find was that children’s reading ability and math ability seem to be related — and much of that relationship can be explained by genetics.

The research also showed that genes can’t explain everything about our abilities, Plomin says. “These genetic propensities are like little nudges,” he says. Slight variations in your genes may nudge you to read more for pleasure. “And that can snowball,” Plomin says.

These kids who like reading may spend more time at the library or may ask their parents to buy them more books — and all of that practice reading will push their skills even further.

Other kids may find reading to be a bit harder due to genetics, Plomin says. “It’s not that the child just isn’t motivated, or that he’s just not trying hard enough.” But with some extra encouragement and support, these children can become good readers as well.

Environmental factors may also explain why, among genetically identical twins, one may prefer math while the other prefers reading, Plomin says. One twin may end up with a really good math teacher, while the other doesn’t. Or one may fall ill, and that may set her back.

Right now, we don’t have all the answers, Plomin says. “I wish I knew what some of the genes are,” he says. That would allow scientists to learn more about how we each learn best.

“What’s going to be needed is very large samples of people to be able to isolate these genes,” says Douglas Detterman, an emeritus professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and editor of the journal *Intelligence*. Detterman, who wasn’t involved in this study, says scientists would likely have to look at the DNA of millions of people in order to start figuring out which genes affect our academic aptitudes.

It’s a daunting task, he says, “but I think it’ll happen faster than we expect.” As we learn more about the influence of genetics on learning, we’ll be able to more easily figure out which learning environment works best for each child.

Here, teachers are a bit like farmers, Detterman says. And children are a bit like corn. “You have corn plants that do well in certain environments, and don’t in others. And the farmer’s job is to get the corn plants into the right soil.”

Educators have been talking about changing the traditional way of teaching math for a long time, but nothing seems to change. Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine article digs into why it has been so hard for U.S schools to effectively implement changes to math pedagogy, and just how far American students have fallen behind as a result. A lot of it comes down to ensuring teachers are comfortable with the new methods, she writes:

“In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices. The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.”

]]>Prodigies in piano or dance can study at schools like Juilliard to develop their musical or performing arts talent. By contrast, nothing like Juilliard exists for children who show great promise at math. But an ambitious experiment will soon change that: In fall 2015, a small, independent school that’s exclusively tailored for math whizzes will open in downtown San Francisco.

Designers of the new, non-profit Proof School intend to provide mathematically gifted youth an intensive and complete education in grades 6-12 that typical schools can’t muster. The pupils will learn advanced areas of math, such as number theory topics that a university math major or graduate student might tackle. They’ll work on math research projects, and engage in community service through math tutoring.

“They’re going to be involved in math in a really different way, a really exciting and dynamic way,” said Sam Vandervelde, who is leaving his math professorship at St. Lawrence University in New York to become the new school’s dean of mathematical sciences.

Proof School will initially open with roughly 45 children in three grades, with plans to grow to around 250 students in a decade. Getting in won’t be easy, but the school’s mission is to serve the needs of “math kids” in the Bay Area — ranging from high-IQ wunderkind types to students who participate in math competitions or math circles, to children who love to play with numbers. “What we want is kids who are passionate about math,” said Paul Zeitz, school co-founder and chair of mathematics at the University of San Francisco.

The new school takes its inspiration from math circles, an Eastern European and Russian tradition that spread to the U.S. starting in the 1990s. These weekly extracurricular clubs bring youngsters together with a mathematician who guides them in exploring numerical ideas and concepts in depth. It’s often a highly interactive conversation, with the kids avidly chiming in with questions and thoughts.

For kids who live and breathe for numbers, the experience can be transformative, as Ian Brown of Marin County, Calif., can attest. In 2011, he began taking his 10-year-old son, Nico, to local math circles. Nico hadn’t been happy or thriving in his public elementary school, because “he wasn’t finding kids in his classes who understood what he was going on about when he was talking about higher mathematics,” Brown said. But math circle changed everything. “Not only did the lights go on, but the heart went on,” he said.

About a year later, Nico joined an advanced, invitation-only math circle for a half dozen students that was led by Zeitz. “Here they all are, for two hours once a week, joyful, joyful, joyful,” Brown recalled. One day in January 2013, as he watched the group animatedly discussing how many ways there are to color a cube with two colors, he turned to another student’s father, Dennis Leary, and marveled: “Look at these guys, they’re thrilled to be working together. Why don’t we do this all day long — and every day?”

Brown wanted to build a school for kids like his son “that they feel is really meant for them.” One conversation led to another and to the birth of Proof School, with him, Leary, and Zeitz as co-founders. To jumpstart it, Brown left his job as a language-arts teacher and dean at a private school for gifted and talented youth where his son, now 13, currently attends seventh grade.

While San Francisco has several high-caliber schools, including Lowell High School, it lacks specialized science schools such as Stuyvesant High School in New York City or the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. But Proof School won’t be like any school out there, anywhere, Zeitz said. Not only will its student body be different — they’ll all have exceptional math ability — but so will its teachers.

At a traditional school, a teacher in a top-notch math classroom might take students on the intellectual equivalent of a strenuous hike that brings them to top of the hill. But as Zeitz put it, “what they don’t realize is that they’re in this incredible mountain range, which they can’t see because their teacher doesn’t know how to get them to put on a hang glider and jump off the cliff and see the entire topography at once.” Proof School teachers will ideally have math Ph.D.s and the deep expertise to do that, he said.

As in math-circle style, the curriculum will emphasize working on and communicating about interesting math problems. Because one of Proof School’s guiding principles or “axioms” is not to waste their pupils’ time, the kids will be spared the unchallenging busy work or mind-numbing exercises that are common in standard schools, Zeitz said.

Every afternoon, students will spend two-and-a-half to three hours learning mathematical sciences, including computer science. Following an unconventional block curriculum structure, the academic year will be broken into six blocks of math instruction that each immerse the entire school in a single topic (such as problem solving or algebra) for five weeks straight. For each topic, kids will be placed into 10 to 12 different tiers by their skill level, Vandervelde said, which allows a lot of flexibility in meeting their individual needs.

“We’ll sort kids into groups based on what they’re ready for,” he said, not by age or grade. Some off-the-charts precocious students will be able to take on very advanced problems at the level of the U.S.A. Mathematical Olympiad, and “we’re going to be ready for them too,” said Vandervelde, who, like Zeitz, competed in the International Mathematical Olympiad as a teenager. “We want to develop and nurture every one of those kids and bring them along as far as they are capable of going.”

Recruiting girls to the school is a high priority, Zeitz said, noting that many young girls are enthusiastic about math but often drop out in their interest between sixth and ninth grades. “We would like to fight that trend as much as possible,” he said.

Beyond numbers, the school will offer a full education, with non-math courses in English, history, languages, and science all scheduled in the mornings in a traditional grade-level manner. Proof School’s teaching style will also draw upon blended learning methods that make use of technology in the classroom, as well as inquiry-based learning practices. Because classroom facility space will initially be limited, the founders plan to tap nearby educational resources: Students might go to the Exploratorium for hands-on science learning, to the Museum of the African Diaspora for history, and to TechShop for 21st century shop class.

Since some math kids are not exactly social butterflies when it comes to people skills, the school’s guiding axioms also make a point of teaching students how to engage with and navigate the world around them. “We will work as hard on social-emotional intelligence and communication skills — writing and public speaking — as we will on anything else,” Zeitz said.

Zeitz and his colleagues have much work ahead to make all the prime factors of their creative ideas, logistical plans, and hiring goals — which includes finding a charismatic humanities dean who “is able to stand up to math nerds,” he said — add up to an equation for success. They’re getting ready to launch an early admissions program and give “a day in the life” school preview this summer. Currently in fundraising mode, the founders hope to secure at least $1 million in order to keep the private tuition as low as possible and provide ample scholarships and financial aid.

To make the school accessible to math kids around the Bay Area, the campus will be located near public transit, most likely in San Francisco’s South Financial District area. The founders also plan to share their math curriculum and resources with the world in an open-source way, which will include hosting math talks and events for the public.

Many families in Silicon Valley have expressed strong interest in Proof School, but other reactions have ranged from initial skepticism to some concerns that the school will be elitist. “We’re not going to be elitist but we will be elite,” Brown said. “We’re not going to be snobby. We’re simply taking kids who operate at this [intellectual] level and putting them together with their peers, which they haven’t had in the past. And many have suffered for it.”

His own son, for example, is leaving his private middle school after this academic year because he has no math peers there, Brown said. If all goes well, after a gap year of homeschooling, the plan is to start Nico in ninth grade at Proof School in September 2015. “Oh, he can’t wait!” Brown said.

]]>*Part 8 of MindShift’s Guide to Games and Learning.*

Keith Devlin is a well-known mathematician and the author of many popular math books. He is co-founder and Executive Director of Stanford University’s Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute and is well known as the “NPR Math Guy.” He’s also a big fan of using video games as a teaching tool and the founder of an education technology company called BrainQuake.

Devlin believes the future demands a substantial change in the way we think about math education. “So many people in the U.S. have never experienced good mathematics teaching. They have a totally false impression of what mathematics is,” he says.

In this conversation, he explains why we now need different mathematical skills than we once did, and points out that the math curriculum of the 20th century did not equip today’s adults to mentor children in the math skills of the 21st century.

Devlin argues that video games are the perfect tool for teaching math. He also sheds some light on those Common Core math problems that are so controversial.

**Jordan Shapiro: In 2011, you published a book entitled ***Mathematics Education For A New Era: Video Games As A Medium For Learning.* W**hat inspired you to write that book? Do you play video games?**

**Keith Devlin: **I not only play video games, I actually wrote one, way back in the early 1980s when personal home computers were just starting to appear. I wrote a math game where you use trigonometry to find buried pirates’ treasure on a desert island. I did it for use in the math class at the local elementary school my daughters attended. When I saw how my daughters were totally engaged by video games (professional ones, much better than mine!), I recognized at once their potential in mathematics education.

I wrote the book to try to give teachers some sense of what it would take to build a good video game for mathematics learning and to explain to game designers what it would take to embed *good* mathematics learning into a game. I was not thinking about building a video game myself (back then).

**JS: In the book, you argue that video games are the best way to teach math to middle school kids. We’ve spoken about this before and you’ve talked about the importance of learning through doing. Why is context so important? And how can thinking of video games as math simulations help to move the typical math class from an product based pedagogy to a process based pedagogy?**

**KD: **Video games are an ideal medium for developing mathematical thinking. It’s a classic case where a technology that renders old skills less relevant actually provides their replacement. Many people outside of the worlds of mathematics (particularly math as used in the world) and mathematics education are simply not aware of the dramatic shift that both disciplines have undergone as a result of digital technologies.

When today’s parents were going through schools, the main focus in mathematics was on mastery of a collection of standard procedures for solving well-defined problems that have unique right answers. If you did well at that, you were pretty well guaranteed a good job. Learning mathematics had been that way for several thousand years. Math textbooks were essentially recipe books.

But now all those math recipes have been coded into devices, some of which we carry round in our pockets. Suddenly, in a single generation, mastery of the procedural math skills that had ruled supreme for three thousand years has become largely irrelevant. In my book, I used the term “mathematical thinking” to distinguish the kind of math that is relevant today from the (procedural) “mathematics” most people are familiar with.

The skill that is in great demand today, and will continue to grow, is the ability to take a novel problem, possibly not well-defined, and likely not having a single “right” answer, and make progress on it, in some cases (but not all!) “solving” it (whatever that turns out to mean). The problems we need mathematics for today come in a messy, real-world context, and part of making progress is to figure out just what you need from that context.

Books and lectures (in a room or on a screen) are useful *resources* for mathematical thinking, but they are no longer at the heart of math learning. The only way to acquire mathematical thinking ability is by a process of exploration – lots of trial-and-error and reflection. This is exactly what video games can deliver. They can provide small scale simulations of the kinds of open-ended, context-influenced, project-based, problem solving that is at such a premium in today’s world.

**JS: I wrote about your game Wuzzit Trouble ****earlier in this series****. I also sometimes show it when I’m doing workshops or public speaking. I’ve used your metaphor often: learning games should work like musical instruments. What does it mean to create a mathematical instrument? Can we do the equivalent for other subjects?**

**KD: **Yes, it’s fortunate that the word “play” applies both to musical instruments and video games. Everyone knows that the best way to learn an instrument is to start to play it. We don’t ask someone to learn to read music before they sit at a piano or pick up a guitar. But that’s exactly what we do in mathematics! The reason we do is that through most of its history, mathematics did not have any instruments. Video games can provide math instruments you can use to learn mathematics. Take a look at the twenty-minute video of the talk I gave recently. In it, I use *Wuzzit Troubl*e to explain how this can be done.

We can do the same kind of thing in other subjects, but many of them already have instruments (e.g. laboratory equipment in the natural sciences). Before video game technologies, however, all we had for math were paper and pencil, augmented with ruler and compass for geometry.

**JS: So, are you saying that kids don’t need to learn how to scribble numbers and equations on paper? Does that mean the symbolic Hindu-Arabic representation of mathematics is obsolete? **

**Keith: **No, kids need to master Hindu-Arithmetic *representation* of numbers far more today than in the past. What they don’t need to do – and I think this is what you’re getting at with your question – is train themselves to do long computations, as was necessary when I was a child. No one calculates that way any more! What they (we) need in today’s world is a deeper understanding of how and why Hindu-Arabic arithmetic works.

In all four offerings of my mathematical thinking MOOC to date, I have had as students, engineers with years of experience who suddenly found themselves out of a job when their employers replaced them with software systems (or sometimes overseas outsource services). Those engineers are now having to retool to learn this other skill of creative problem solving – *mathematical thinking*.

Incidentally, the Common Core State Standards that are so much in the news were designed to guide the shift to this new kind of mathematics, as I’ve tried to explain before. Many of the parents who object to the basic goal of Common Core appear do so because they too have not realized how much the world has changed in its demands for mathematical skills. (There is a lot to argue about when it comes to the implementation of the Core, but that’s a separate issue.)

**JS: In the past, you and I have discussed the “Symbol Barrier.” Now I think I misunderstood the concept. I always thought you meant that Hindu-Arabic representation was an obstacle to mathematical thinking. But clearly that’s not what you meant. Explain the “Symbol Barrier” and how video games can help to circumvent it.**

**Keith: **The Symbol Barrier is the name I gave to a phenomenon first noticed in the early 1990s. If people need to use basic computational mathematics in their everyday lives or careers, they quickly pick it up and are able to perform at a 98 percent accuracy level. That’s not just some people, it’s ALL people (apart from around 3 percent who have a brain condition called dyscalculia). But if you ask those same people to solve the same math problems presented in a traditional, school, paper-and-pencil test format, their performance levels drops from 98 percent accuracy to a mere 37 percent correct. Those people (all of us) don’t have an inherent math problem, they (we) have a language problem! That’s the Symbol Barrier.

The Symbol Barrier is a problem – i.e. a barrier to entry into mathematical thinking – because at the moment, learning mathematics and being tested in mathematics is all done by way of the symbolic representation! It’s as if we taught and tested people’s musical ability by instructing them in musical notation and testing how well they could write music using that notation. We don’t do that. We ask them to sit down and play an instrument!

Same with driving. Would you prefer to be driven by someone who had just passed the written part of the driving test, or would you want to know they had passed the road test?

Or an airline pilot. Which gives you more confidence, someone who has flown successfully in a simulator or a trainee pilot who has just passed a written test on how to fly a plane?

Likewise for mathematics. I would feel much more confident in the arithmetical ability of someone who had scored highly on my own game *Wuzzit Trouble* than someone who had simply learned how to line up numbers in columns and apply the standard algorithms of arithmetic. The latter just requires rule following, the former makes you *think*.

**JS: What other types of learning products are you working on at your company, BrainQuake? Which mathematical concepts are you trying to tackle? **

**KD: **Our basic platform is mobile games, though we intend to bring out Web-based PC versions for classroom use. The user data we obtained from the release of *Wuzzit Trouble*, last fall was as good, if not better, than we had hoped. We were ranked highly in many general game categories, not just educational games, and we were appealing to people of all ages.

Once we knew *Wuzzit Trouble* was succeeding as a general category video game, it made sense to develop that side more, so as to appeal to the widest possible audience. So we have been focusing on embedding that basic gears mechanic into a richer video game.

However, to be honest, *Wuzzit Trouble* is barely classified as a game. I would (and did) call it an entertaining and engaging math-based mobile app. To reach a much wider audience, we need to incorporate more of the elements of the highly successful video games that attract tens of millions of players. Teaming up with John Romero (the legendary creator of *Doom* and *Quake*) as our chief Game designer provided us an exciting opportunity to go after that elusive big audience.

We are also developing the assessment side. Students, parents, and teachers – and adult player-learners – want to know how well they are progressing in terms of math learning. Video-game learning provides extremely powerful mechanisms to track learning – potentially far better than the existing methods used in standardized tests. Doing that requires the development of powerful algorithms that take the raw player data (which goes right down to individual finger actions on the screen) and use it to infer the player’s thought processes behind those actions, so we can see *how* a player is trying to solve the problem. This will take the old idea of “show your working” to a whole different level.

**JS: This sounds great. Should we be trying to do this for every part of the mathematics curriculum? **

**KD: **BrainQuake is absolutely *not* obsessed with trying to achieve “full curriculum coverage,” whatever that might mean. To my mind it makes no sense to try to use video games to provide learning for parts of mathematics where an alternative, interactive representation does not add anything significantly new.

Also, I think it will always be largely up to a good teacher to help learners master the symbolic approach necessary for more advanced mathematics. I think that people who see technology as a way to eliminate the need for good classroom teachers fundamentally misunderstand what it takes to help someone learn how to think a different way – in my case the mathematical way. Technology can help. It can help in significant ways. But it cannot replace a good teacher.

**JS: What do teachers and parents need to know about the future of game-based learning, the future of pedagogy, and the future of education in general?**

**KD: **Game-based learning *is* the future. Games are just simulators with an internal incentive structure (often dopamine based). That means they tap into the way humans, and all living creatures, are hard-wired to learn: *by doing*.

But people are not machines. We are social creatures. If you want a child to develop into a useful citizen who can have a good life and contribute to society, you need to develop that child fully as a human being. That requires good parenting and great teaching. Doing it right requires close integration of the technologies with the human interactions.

*The MindShift Guide to Games and Learning is made possible through the generous support of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and is a project of the Games and Learning Publishing Council.*

Drummer Clayton Cameron breaks down the beats behind different types of music, illustrating how he uses math every time he picks up the drumsticks. This TED-Ed talk gets people dancing in their seats!

]]>Recent studies have shown that kindergarteners who are exposed to complicated math concepts actually do better in math when they get to elementary school, regardless of initial skill level. Researchers report that many students already know how to count or recognize shapes before they even get to kindergarten, but teachers still spend a lot of math time on those concepts, effectively offering nothing to students.

In an article for the *New York Times* Motherlode blog, MindShift contributor and author Annie Murphy Paul explains why the perception that U.S. students are bad at math might indicate schools aren’t challenging students enough.