The mathematical skills of Chinese and Japanese kids are almost legendary and universally praised. Teachers and experts, who want to improve math teaching methods look for inspiration in educational systems from such faraway places as Singapore and Hong Kong. What is the key to top performance in math and is it possible to repeat this success in the USA?
Culture is important
It would be naïve to think that the Asian culture, which puts great emphasis on hard work, has nothing to do with the successes of those countries in math. However, some experts believe that the roots of math skills go beyond the superficial notions about Asian countries and are deeply rooted in the language and everyday practice. Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote a book about success, points out that Chinese number words are much better suited for doing math.
For example, the names of numbers in Chinese are organized in a more logical way than their English counterparts and that makes them easier to learn. In consequence, 4 year old children in China can count to forty, while their peers in the US can only count to 15. Chinese number words are also very short, which makes them easier to memorize.
This could account for Chinese memory span of 10 digits, well above international average. Memory span plays an important part not only in memorizing numbers, but also in solving math problems.
A good educational system is a must
When we look at the results of international math tests it is clear that Asian countries constantly outperform the rest of the world. That would not be possible, if Chinese, Japanese and South Korean authorities did not put so much effort into creating math teaching programs, which turn kids into little math geniuses. Are those systems that much different from what American students experience at school?
They really are unique and it is enough to look at Singapore math kindergarten worksheets to see the difference. Asian experts in education found a way to combine a practical approach to teaching math with a more thorough method of explaining basic math facts. Thanks to that, Singapore math students are able to solve simple and complex math problems with more ease and explain the relations between different math facts.
The road to success is long
Nobody becomes a math genius in a day and in order to be really good at math, children and their parents should invest more time and effort in practicing math. Typical Singaporean elementary school student spends few hours a day at school, after which he or she attends after school classes or private tutoring sessions and next spends additional hour or two doing homework, often supervised by parents.
Even if a student is not particularly bright, with this much work put into the learning process, he or she will most likely succeed. Singaporean classes are not made of a few exceptionally bright students and the rest, who is falling far behind. It is the average level of understanding math that makes Singaporean students so much better at math than the rest of the world.
Marta Gromadzka is a writer and editor with a wide variety of experience, including writing for websites internationally and editing books on many different subjects and in a variety of formats.