Darko Odic’s research examines how children acquire abstract cognitive and perceptual representations, including those of number, confidence, and mathematical thought. By examining individual and developmental differences in, for example, how children’s earliest intuitions about number inform their formal math abilities, he seeks to understand why children sometimes learn complex ideas with ease, and sometimes struggle.
My plans for the fellowship period
To learn, we must make mistakes. But mistakes are only useful when they are noticed, evaluated, and corrected. When learning mathematics, a topic particularly challenging for many children around the world, “error monitoring” is especially important: math problems often require one answer in a sea of (literally) infinite possibilities. Unlike learning about gravity through building blocks, math problems do not physically fall down when a mistake is made; unlike learning social skills, math problems don’t flash with moments of anger or joy; unlike reading, math mistakes do not lead to meaningless strings of words.
During the Fellowship period, I will be investigating one potential mechanism for how children catch errors in mathematics: by using their intuitive (but approximate) sense of number. We hypothesize that young children use their intuitive number system to arrive at a probabilistic prediction of the likely answer for a simple equation and therefore catch when they are likely to have made a mistake. We have recently shown that differences in children’s number sense correlate with detecting math mistakes made by others. Over the next 2-4 years my lab plans to: (1) use pupillometric measures to measure the degree of surprise children experience when catching mistakes in mathematics; (2) temporarily enhance or impair children’s intuitive number sense and observe the effects this has on their error monitoring; and (3) train children to actively make predictions about the outcomes of math problems to increase the chance of catching and learning from mistakes. I aim to provide both a mechanistic understanding of how core cognition contributes to formal concepts and to characterize why some children are more successful at learning about math compared to others.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
My research focuses on children’s early mathematical abilities, which have consistently been shown to predict later school and job success, income level, happiness, and personal health. It will help identify mechanisms that allow children to be more independent, effective, and self-efficacious learners, ultimately informing educators on how children can learn complex topics with minimal external feedback. The current proposal, therefore, helps identify the conditions and skills that children should ideally maximize to deepen their development and ability to contribute to society. And, because the intuitive number sense is present in every child from birth, this work also has important universal implications, and seems to promote education initiatives across traditional cultural and economic divides.