I regularly receive a newsletter from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics filled with lots of information about studies, new information, and other things to help me stay up with current trends.
The article is from the New York Times. They reported on a study done to see how the brain works while solving mathematical problems. They studied results from two different tests. The first recorded the images of neurons firing in the brain while the other focused on how the patterns shift over time as problems are solved.
Using the results, scientists claim there are four stages involved in solving math problems. The first stage is encoding or downloading occurs when they read the problem. The second stage is planning or deciding on the strategy needed to solve the problem. The third stage is solving it or actually doing the mathematical calculations and the last stage is responding to the problem or writing down the answer.
This study looked at how the type of problem effected the duration of each stage. Some problems took more time to plan and less to solve while others took lest time to plan and more to solve but both problems might take the same amount of time to complete from start to finish.
In other words, this is the first time they've been able to observe the internal process the brain goes through when solving problems. The authors of this study are hoping to figure out how the brain works so they can determine a way to help students learn to ignore extraneous distractions to focus on the math program.
These stages correlate to how I teach students in the classroom to solve math problems, especially word problems. I tell students to read the problem which is encoding or downloading the problem into the brain. Next is to plan how to solve the problem or the second stage when you choose a strategy be it draw a picture or guess and check. The third stage is to do the calculations and the final is write down the answer.
This study provides the first answer to the question of how does our brain work when it solves math problems. So with future investigations scientists might soon take this information and formulate cognitive theory so we can develop better ways of teaching students.