Understanding numbers, around the world

January 02, 2018

Daniel Ansari, Professor of Psychology

Story and photo by Rob Rombouts

A new fellowship award will help give Daniel Ansari’s research a global scope.

Ansari, Professor in the Department of Psychology, has been awarded a Jacobs Foundation Advanced Research Fellowship, valued at 400,000 Swiss Franc (more than $500,000 Canadian).

Ansari’s research focuses on better understanding how children develop numerical and mathematical skills using both behavioural and brain-imaging methods. As part of his research program he is developing tools to screen numeracy skills in children 4 to 5 years-old. Through the fellowship funding, Ansari wants to expand his screener to develop norms of numeracy skills for use in eight different countries, including Belgium, Singapore and Chile.

“Creating cross-cultural norms will allow for comparison of early numeracy skills between different countries,” said Ansari. “It will also allow us to make the tool available to educators in those countries, and make it available at no cost.”

The Jacobs Foundation is a Switzerland-based foundation, focused on investing “in the future of young people so that they can become socially responsible and productive members of society.”

“It’s a unique foundation,” said Ansari, “as it is one of the few large scale philanthropic organizations in the world focused on child and youth development.”

The Jacobs Foundation has two main areas of focus that Ansari’s research relates to: investigating the science of learning, and supporting early education.

“From a basic science perspective, we can explore the idea that children understand number symbols, which are cultural inventions, and look at how the brain comes to represent them over the course of children’s development and education,” said Ansari. “We can then turn this knowledge into applications, look at how, if we understand the mechanisms that underpin the development of early numeracy skills, we can better understand and develop intervention tools and screeners to help develop numeracy skills.”

“We know early math skills is an early predictor of academic performance, as well as later success in income, and better future health outcomes,” said Ansari, “but we know less about early development of math skills than we do of literacy skills.”

Much of the funding will be provided to support graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at Western as well as to international partners to help with data collection. Ansari said the support from the Jacobs Foundation will allow him to take more risks than he typically could.

"A study focussed on developing norms for a screener across cultural context is high-risk, and wouldn’t typically be funded by a granting agency," said Ansari. “You could approach a company for funding, but then you wouldn’t necessarily be able to make it available for free.”

Ansari is also excited about the Jacob Foundation’s commitment to building a community of researchers.

“The foundation has regular fellow meetings, where we get to interact with the best people in the field,” said Ansari. “I am already looking forward to these meetings and possible future collaborations.”