Putting Cognitive Science to Work: How Word-Learning Biases are the Source and Solution to Children’s Misconceptions in Mathematics
Dominic Gibson Gibson

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Chicago

Primary Discipline

How do children learn that “three” refers to a number of items and not to another characteristic of the items (e.g. color, shape. etc.)? Early math concepts are fundamental to academic success, but children consistently struggle to learn words like “angle”, “unit,” or “three.” Although previous researchers have suggested that young children have conceptual deficits that prevent them from easily learning these concepts, in the present study I examine an alternative possibility. Namely, I test the novel possibility that children’s misconceptions actually stem from the way that math language is typically structured combined with the way that young children learn the meanings of words. By making simple changes to the structure of the language input that children receive so that it is more in line with their intuitions, we may be able to prevent misconceptions that can seriously delay children’s acquisition of key concepts. Specifically, I examine three cases of mathematical development – geometry (angles), measurement (units) and number (the integers) – all of which are abstract concepts and prone to misconceptions. In the first study, I show that children’s misconceptions regarding ‘angle’, do not stem from any inherent difficulty of this concept but from an assumptions they make when learning new words. In the second study, I test whether this principle may also explain children’s misconceptions regarding units of measurement. In the final study, I show how these principles can still be used to understand a more complicated example – children’s acquisition of the number words.
About Dominic Gibson Gibson
Dominic Gibson is a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Chicago. After receiving a BA in Psychology at Wesleyan University in 2010, he worked in the Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Child Development before arriving at the University of Chicago. His work explores how children learn abstract words and concepts, the origins of common misconceptions in mathematics, and research-based instructional strategies for improving children’s understanding of foundational math concepts. Previously, his work has been funded by a National Sciences Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and an Institute of Educational Sciences Predoctoral Fellowship.

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