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The maths gene

Research summary & links to further information about whether or not there's a gene for maths ability.


Whether or not there’s a ‘maths gene’ is a debate that sometimes comes up with learners. Some people believe that their genes determine their ability to do maths – and that if they don’t have the ‘maths gene’ they will never be any good at maths, no matter how hard they try.

But the idea of a ‘maths gene’ is misleading. Regardless of where you stand on the nature vs. nurture debate (and there are many different opinions on this), maths is a subject that covers a lot of different areas. For instance, the Essentials of Numeracy model covers Numbers; Operations and Calculations; Handling Data; and Shape, Space and Measures.

So even if someone did have a natural advantage in one of these areas, it doesn’t follow that they’d also be good at all other areas of maths. In fact, research shows that there is no link between someone’s ability in one area compared to their ability in another. Genes for specific tasks and talents do not exist.

In recent years, evidence has also been building that intelligence itself can be altered through training. Studies with pre-school children and with adults have shown this to be true. And so it’s important for learners to recognise that genes are not the end of the story.

Motivation, confidence and interest all play a part in what an individual does and how they learn. Research studying geniuses shows that it’s not innate talent that sets them apart but the practice that they devote to their chosen field.


Links to more information on the ‘maths gene’ debate

This study looked at the impact of genes and environmental factors on learning and cognitive abilities: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841819/

A review of the effect that views of ability have on achievement: https://eprints.utas.edu.au/20994/1/whole_MuskettSarah2003_thesis.pdf

This paper explores mindsets, talent, and how effort makes a difference to ability: https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/sites/default/files/dweck_2008_mindsets_and_math-science_achievement.pdf

A summary of how parental background affects cognitive abilities and how training can make a difference: http://theconversation.com/childrens-cognitive-abilities-linked-to-parental-education-26070

The debate about a ‘maths gene’ - https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/research-debate-about-maths-gene