May 2nd, 2013
07:02 AM ET
Kids don't all learn at the same pace, or in the same way. Extra tutoring doesn't always help either, but for some it helps a lot. Why?
Researchers, publishing this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, believe the answer is in the brain. By looking at the structures and wiring of children's brains, they've developed a method of predicting who will benefit most from tutoring.
This doesn't mean, however, that you will be seeing brain scans in every school.
"What we’ve done is much more modest, in terms of trying to understand what are the systems that underlie individual differences in response to math tutoring," said Vinod Menon, professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and senior author of the study.
The study looked at 24 children in third grade, ages 8 to 9, which is a critical period for gaining basic math skills. Menon's previous research, published in 2011, found that third-graders demonstrate superior problem-solving abilities compared to second-graders, and that this is also associated with brain changes.
While 24 is a small number of subjects, it's typical for a study involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
One group of children underwent tutoring for eight weeks; during that time, the others did not. Before this, scientists used brain scanning technology to examine the structures and wiring of the children's brains.
With tutoring, perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers noticed that the kids were quicker and more accurate in their arithmetic problems. Some improved more than others.
"We observed a lot of variation in how much a child learns as a result of the tutoring, and we asked, what drives these individual differences?" Menon said. "Is there something in the brain structure and the way it’s wired that can predict whether child will learn a lot or a little?"
It appeared that IQ, working memory and initial math abilities had, on average, nothing to do with how much any given child improved during this time.
The magic formula, according to this study, was in the brain.
The volume of the hippocampus, a structure in the brain crucial for episodic memory, was associated with performance improvement with tutoring. It's instrumental in making memories for places and events over time. Researchers found it surprising that the same area appears to not only facilitate math learning, but also to predict math learning. Adults use a different brain system for learning.
How the hippocampus is functionally linked to other key areas involved in learning also appeared to be very important in predicting improvement. Namely, connections to the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices (involved in memory encoding and retrieval) and the basal ganglia (important for habits and procedures) were highly predictive, Menon said. These connectivity measures were even more predictive than parameters involving the structures themselves.
"It tells us about the memory systems in which the brain uses to scaffold and build knowledge representations," he said.
Menon cautions against any interpretations of this research as evidence that some people are born with better brains for math than others. It's not clear that the brain attributes measured in the study won't change over time, even within a year, and environmental factors have a huge impact on brain development.
"One has to be really, really cautious about pushing these kinds of findings, and interpreting these findings, in that light," he said.
The model's predictability is stronger than in a purely associational study, Menon said. Researchers used a machine-learning algorithm to test out the predictability of the brain scan model before using it on the 24 children who were placed in tutoring or non-tutoring groups.
But it's currently unclear how this brain data could be used to design different learning strategies for children who are predicted to learn math less easily than others, he said.
"How this plays out for identifying children and figuring out alternate strategies, that’s future work," he said.
Menon also studies music's effects on the brain.
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