According to the world economic forum an estimated 65% of children who are now entering elementary school will graduate to work on completely new occupations that do not exist today (Chapter 1: The Future of Jobs and Skills, 2016). Although, our world is changing rabidly and future labor market requirements are not fully understood, researchers agree that future workforce will have a higher demand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) majors (Fayer et al., 2017). Mathematics is essential for STEM majors and occupations that are progressively more on demand. Traditionally, mathematics has been a core subject in school curricula and research shows that success in math relies in part on the child’s age and their readiness to receive instruction (Agostino et al., 2010). Advances in mathematical performance coincide with the development of fundamental cognitive processes such as mental competence and the protracted development of brain structures such as the pre-frontal cortex (Pascual-Leone et al., 2010). This plenary will discuss brain correlates of mathematical problem solving in adults and children, and potential implications to education.
About twenty years ago, a neurofunctional model was proposed to explain the brain areas that support mental arithmetic, mainly focusing on the functions of the parietal cortex, in posterior parts of the brain (Dehaene & Cohen, 1997; Dehaene et al., 2003). Although this model is based mainly on lesion patient studies, it has stimulated a substantial body of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research with healthy individuals. fMRI studies on mathematical cognition typically fall into two categories those that use number tasks (i.e., stimuli are numbers or quantities and participants are asked to make simple magnitude judgements) and those that use calculations tasks (i.e., formal mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication). In quantitative Activation Likelihood Estimation (ALE) meta-analyses we examined neurofunctional activity associated with number and calculation tasks in healthy individuals, children (Arsalidou et al., 2018) and adults (Arsalidou & Taylor, 2011). Data shows that a large overlap exists among brain regions implicated in number and calculation tasks, however the regions in which they differed were most notable, such as distinct areas in prefrontal cortices. Specifically, compared to number tasks, solving calculation tasks elicit more activity in prefrontal brain areas; a difference, which suggests that calculations implicate more core cognitive resources, such as working memory and mental-attention (Arsalidou et al., 2013). Moreover, addition, subtraction and multiplication differentially implicated brain regions in the parietal and prefrontal cortex in the left and right hemispheres. Similar to adults, children activate a varied set of brain areas in established parietal and frontal regions when solving problems with numbers and calculations (Arsalidou et al., 2018). Importantly, children implicate extensively the insular cortex when solving calculation tasks. The insular cortex has not been previously emphasized in its role in mathematical cognition; instead it has best known for its involvement in processes of emotion and motivation (Duerden et al., 2013).
Concluding, this presentation will highlight neuroscience evidence to underline potential implications for teacher’s professional development and students learning experiences, and discuss the importance of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience in evidence-based education.