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Good storytelling ability related to good mathematical skills

Science News Online just published a fascinating article: Good Stories, Good Math. The article is subtitled: "Preschoolers who can tell good stories develop good mathematical skills by the first grade." Writer Julie Rehmeyer reports on a new study which reveals that there's apparently a very strong connection between mathematical ability and the ability to tell stories from different perspectives.

The researchers found that 3- and 4-year old preschoolers who were able to tell stories and switch perspectives while doing so performed better in mathematics 2 years later. An example of switching perspectives is this comment from a child:

"The waiter was mad when the frog jumped in the soup."

The child was managing multiple relationships, simultaneously keeping track of how the waiter was feeling and of what the frog was doing.

While I had never considered such a relationship, it makes sense to me. Mathematics is all about managing relationships between "things." It's about being able to think abstractly. Storytelling shares these characteristics, even though the storytelling abstractions are about people and what they might be thinking and feeling, and not mathematical abstractions.

An interesting refinement that the researchers made was one that allowed them to make a distinction between mathematical skill and skill in arithmetic. They are not the same skill and many people who are mathematically gifted perform arithmetic poorly.

The study is based on the work of Stanford University mathematician Keith Devlin. Rehmeyer explains that in Devlin's book The Math Gene, he argues:

"...that language arose when humans acquired the ability to visualize complex relationships among different objects when the objects themselves are not in view. The ability to do mathematics arises from that same ability to manipulate abstractions."

The implications of this study are huge. Can students be taught abstract thinking skills early in life through storytelling and improve their future mathematical ability?

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