In their scientific language the researchers write that “longitudinal functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 7–9-year-old children revealed that the transition from use of counting to memory-based retrieval parallels increased hippocampal and decreased prefrontal-parietal engagement during arithmetic problem solving.” This is being interpreted by some educators as showing the crucial role played by rote memorization in the growing brains of young math students.
Reports Canada’s National Post (behind a paywall):
The progression from counting on fingers to simply remembering that, for example, six plus three equals nine, parallels physical changes in a child’s brain, in which the hippocampus, a key brain structure for memory, gradually takes over from the pre-frontal parietal cortex, an area of higher order reasoning. In effect, as young math students memorize the basics, their brains reorganize to accommodate the greater demands of more complex math. It is a gradual process, like “overlapping waves,” the researchers write, but it clearly shows that, for the growing child’s brain, rote memorization is a key step along the way to efficient mathematical reasoning. By tracking a group of young students over the course of a year, the authors show “that children learn to associate individual problems with the correct answers. Repeated problem solving during the early stages of arithmetic skill development also contributes to memory re-encoding and consolidation, thus resulting in enhanced hippocampal activity and ability to recall basic arithmetic facts… The maturation of problem-solving skills is characterized by a gradual decrease in the use of inefficient procedures such as counting and an increase in the use of memory-based strategies.” As a scientific justification of rote learning, the study seems likely to further polarize the controversy over math teaching styles, in which arithmetical fundamentalists are squared off against the popular and progressive forces of “discovery-based” learning, in which students are encouraged to find their own ways to the right answer.