1, 2, 3, and Counting: Professor Liz Gunderson looks at children’s many paths to numbers

Professor Liz Gunderson Photo by Jordan Morning

PBS Professor Liz Gunderson recalls that she explored many areas of psychology as an undergraduate majoring in psychology and computer science: social robotics, animal research, behavioral studies with monkeys. “All really fascinating,” she says. But over the course of two gap years after college, Gunderson decided she wanted to do psychology research with real-world impact. That is how she arrived in the field of children’s learning, studying how children learn math, the focus of her graduate school studies at the University of Chicago.

Gunderson now comes to IU as a full professor under the F100 initiative through which the university plans to hire 100 new faculty from a set of core research areas, among them Precision Developmental Science.

As a researcher in this field, Gunderson studies how children’s math abilities develop and how this development varies across children. She considers how the home environment impacts math learning in different ways, as well as how social factors such as gender and socio-economic backgrounds play a role in the process.

As she explains it, “One of the big features of my research program is combining cognitive, social, emotional, and motivational approaches, how the same interaction between a parent and child can influence that child’s cognitive development, but also their motivation. So, for example in math, parents might be helping their child with homework, and at the same time that the child is better understanding fractions (or not), they’re also picking up ideas or attitudes from the parent about whether math is fun or scary. These social, motivational, and cognitive aspects are all happening at the same time, varying across people and families, and varying across time and circumstances in other ways as well.”


One of the big features of my research program is combining cognitive, social, emotional, and motivational approaches, how the same interaction between a parent and child can influence that child’s cognitive development, but also their motivation.

– Professor Liz Gunderson


At the heart of Gunderson’s current research are two intriguing questions:

The first, how children learn the meaning of numbers, is one that has long puzzled researchers. As she points out, “It’s not that straightforward. When kids are about two years old in the U.S., they learn how to count. They can say the words in order. But they don’t really understand what the words mean. If you ask them, for example, “Can you put three fish in a pond,” you can tell they do not understand the cardinal meaning of the word “three,” even though they can count to ten. That “three” means “three things” takes a longer time. We’re still trying to understand how they go to the insight that when you count things, the last number you say represents the entire quantity that you counted. For children this is a big turning point.”

Yet there are great differences across kids with respect to when they reach this milestone. Some get to it before their third birthday. Others might be five and a half and haven’t yet reached it. And that, she says, “seems to really matter in their ability to succeed in kindergarten, and going forward, because math is cumulative.” It has a ripple effect on each child’s future.

Gunderson’s current study – “ManyNumbers” – grapples with such diversity on a hugely ambitious global scale. As one of the leaders of a large collaboration of 180 developmental labs from around the world, she is now planning a study to be conducted by all of the labs, the results of which will shed light on how children learn the meaning of numbers.  “It’s going to be very collaborative,” Gunderson notes, “and to look at this diversity will be really exciting.”

A second major question in Gunderson’s work is how children learn to distinguish number from size. As she explains it, if you ask a three-year-old, is there more of this or more of that item, their answer will likely depend on the size of the items rather than their number. By designing a series of picture books, she and her collaborator, Professor Mary Wagner at the University of Dayton, are investigating how to improve children’s ability to grasp the difference and switch back and forth between number and size. It’s a skill that, like counting, they believe, might generalize to other math skills as well as more general executive functions.

And just as her work illuminates the basic science of how numbers come into focus in children’s minds, its real-world impact comes into focus as well.

Threaded throughout Gunderson’s work are questions about how gender stereotypes and socio-economic background impact children’s early math learning and their decision to pursue STEM fields as they get older. Keen to explore the origins of gender differences with respect to STEM, she has studied the way boys tend to outperform girls on certain spatial skills such as the ability to visualize the rotation of a shape. And while this early difference is likely the result of gender expectations which lead to boys getting more exposure to activities that develop spatial skills, it may lead girls ultimately to steer away from math, despite having the same abilities.

Gunderson’s current projects also explore the way socio-economic background affects individual variability in math learning. “Previous research in this area has suggested that kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds have a particular challenge with the distinction between number and size, and so may benefit from the materials we’re creating. We want to look across all the studies to determine whether kids from different backgrounds benefit more or less from the books we design.” That may apply to girls as well, since book-reading is something many girls are already inclined to do.

Newly arrived at Indiana University, Gunderson is eager to be part of the vibrant research community she has found here. “I think the developmental, cognitive and social research going on here is very exciting,” she says. “Being able to talk to people who do math cognition research and who do research on gender and STEM from a social perspective and other areas that I maybe haven’t thought of yet – I’m really excited for new colleagues and new collaborations.”

Hear Professor Gunderson talk about her work and goals!


Science Writer