Why Are Asians So Good At Maths And Science?

Asian universities are constantly coming up tops in international rankings. Is there a science to why Asian students excel academically?

AsianScientist (May 5, 2016) – As far as stereotypes go, the one of the bookish, bespectacled Asian kid reading in a corner seems to be fairly accurate. One merely needs to look at how Asian universities are faring in international rankings to observe a growing trend.

While US and UK universities dominate the top three spots of the 2015/2016 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) Top Universities Rankings, there is nevertheless a strong showing from Asia throughout the top 50. Singapore’s National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University came in 12th and 13th, respectively, ahead of other prestigious institutions such as Yale University and King’s College London. Other Asian universities clinching a spot in the top 50 list are Tsinghua University, The University of Hong Kong, Seoul National University and Kyoto University, just to name a few.

When ranked by subject, it becomes even more obvious. Universities from China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore have made it into the top ten and/or number one spots of the 2016 version of the QS World University Rankings by Subject report.

It seems this trend also shows up in academia. China, Japan and South Korea are the top three countries on the 2016 Nature Index, a ranking based on the scientific output of over 60,000 research articles. For the fourth year running, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has retained its spot as top institution in the world—a position it has held since the inception of the index in 2013.

Which begs the question: why are Asian students known for academic excellence, particularly in maths and science?

Teaching maths, the Asian way

Perhaps the success of East Asian education systems lies in the way that maths, in particular, is taught in these countries. For example, Japanese children are taught an 81-line jingle, called the kuku, that teaches them the times table. They eventually learn how to recite the entire thing at speed, even competing with each other. In adulthood, a Japanese person can recall that 7 x 7 = 49 simply because ‘seven seven forty nine’ sounds right when sung.

In Chinese classrooms, the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ approach is favored, where children sit in rows and are directly instructed by a teacher writing on a blackboard. Here, students are taught maths using rote memorization and repetition.

Classrooms in the UK and the US, on the other hand, decided decades ago to move away from ‘chalk and talk’ and towards inquiry learning that is based on students’ interests, and where students have a greater hand in their education. But now, there is increasing evidence that these new-age education techniques, where teachers facilitate instead of teach and praise on the basis that all students must be winners, tend to lead to under-performance.

What about number sense?

Nevertheless, Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University in the US, maintains that certain learning techniques that are used in Asian classrooms, such as times table repetition, practice and timed testing, are ‘unnecessary and damaging.’ Instead, she believes that having number sense is a more useful skill.

“People with number sense are those who can use numbers flexibly. When asked to solve 7 x 8, someone with number sense may have memorized 56 but they would also be able to work out that 7 x 7 is 49 and then add 7 to make 56, or they may work out ten 7’s and subtract two 7’s (70-14),” Boaler wrote in an article on Youcubed, a website that provides resources for maths educators.

“The more we emphasize memorization to students, the less willing they become to think about numbers and their relations and to use and develop number sense.”

Consider the cultural factor

The emphasis on Confucian values could be another factor of Asian students’ success, according to Professor Frederick Leung from the University of Hong Kong. Leung has studied the influential role of culture in maths education for twenty years now, and his work in the area has turned up some intriguing answers.

“In East Asia, even the bad students are not that bad; the range is not that wide. It’s partly due to the Confucian belief in effort,” Leung said.

“In Western culture, there is a lot of skepticism about practicing. I am not saying maths is about practicing, but memorization [and] practicing have a role to play in maths. Some Western professors have been extremely skeptical about memorization and putting in effort.”

A study of Australian schoolchildren conducted by Dr. John Jerrim, reader in education and social statistics from the Institute of Education at the University of London, also shows that culture plays a part. His findings showed that the children of immigrants from high-achieving East Asian countries, when educated in western-style schools, continue to score just as highly.

However, he warned that “one does not want to erroneously conclude that rote learning helps to improve children’s maths skills, simply because this technique is often practiced within East Asian schools.”

His comments were in response to the UK’s attempts to learn from the education systems of China, Japan and Singapore. In July 2014, the Department for Education announced an initiative to bring 50 Shanghai maths teachers to England to help raise standards in the classroom.

“The attitudes and beliefs East Asian parents instill in their children make an important contribution to their high levels of academic achievement. Yet as such factors are heavily influenced by culture and home environment, they are likely to be beyond the control of schools,” Jerrim said.

It appears that in Asia, at least, students are set up for success: through an emphasis on hard work, the desire to succeed, a conducive environment and a teaching style that, despite criticism, delivers results.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Coming from a design background, Filzah brings a fresh perspective to science communications. She is particularly interested in healthcare and technology.

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