6 reasons Asians are better at Math

Another learning from the book Outliers: The Story of success — You can read Part 1 and Part 2

1. Chinese number words are remarkably brief.

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. Now look away and spend twenty seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again. If you speak English, you have about a 50 percent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time.
Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two-second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers — 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 — right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.
Chinese number words are remarkably brief. Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for instance, 4 is “si” and 7 “qi”). Their English equivalents — “four,” “seven” — are longer: pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length. In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers.

2. Eleven is ten-one

It turns out that there is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, so one might expect that we would also say oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, and fiveteen. But we don’t. We use a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly, we have forty and sixty, which sound like the words they are related to (four and six). But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound like five and three and two, but not really. And, for that matter, for numbers above twenty, we put the “decade” first and the unit number second (twenty-one, twenty-two), whereas for the teens, we do it the other way around (fourteen, seventeen, eighteen). The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan, and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.
That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to forty. American children at that age can count only to fifteen, and most don’t reach forty until they’re five.
The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily. Ask an English-speaking seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty-two in her head, and she has to convert the words to numbers (37 22). Only then can she do the math: 2 plus 7 is 9 and 30 and 20 is 50, which makes 59. Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence.
By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

3. Fractions are transparent

“The Asian system is transparent,” says Karen Fuson, a Northwestern University psychologist who has closely studied Asian-Western differences. “I think that it makes the whole attitude toward math different. Instead of being a rote learning thing, there’s a pattern I can figure out. There is an expectation that I can do this. There is an expectation that it’s sensible. For fractions, we say three-fifths. The Chinese is literally ‘out of five parts, take three.’ That’s telling you conceptually what a fraction is. It’s differentiating the denominator and the numerator.” The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among
Western children starts in the third and fourth grades, and Fuson argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn’t seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.

4. Rice agriculture requires hard work

As the anthropologist Francesca Bray puts it, rice agriculture is “skill oriented”: if you’re willing to weed a bit more diligently, and become more adept at fertilizing, and spend a bit more time monitoring water levels, and do a better job keeping the claypan absolutely level, and make use of every square inch of your rice paddy, you’ll harvest a bigger crop. Throughout history, not surprisingly, the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer.

How life was in Europe

“Ninety-nine percent of all human activity described in this and other accounts [of French country life],” he writes, “took place between late spring and early autumn.” In the Pyrenees and the Alps, entire villages would essentially hibernate from the time of the first snow in November until March or April. In more temperate regions of France, where temperatures in the winter rarely fell below freezing, the same pattern held.

And in Asia

If you were a peasant farmer in Southern China, by contrast, you didn’t sleep through the winter. In the short break marked by the dry season, from November through February, you busied yourself with side tasks. You made bamboo baskets or hats and sold them in the market.
Working in a rice field is ten to twenty times more labor-intensive than working on an equivalent-size corn or wheat field. Some estimates put the annual workload of a wet-rice farmer in Asia at three thousand hours a year.

Chinese has a lot of proverbs about the hard work:

  • “No food without blood and sweat.”
  • “Farmers are busy; farmers are busy; if farmers weren’t busy, where would grain to get through the winter come from?”
  • “In winter, the lazy man freezes to death.”
  • “Don’t depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load.”
  • “Useless to ask about the crops, it all depends on hard work and fertilizer.”
  • “If a man works hard, the land will not be lazy.”
  • “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich”.
Working really hard is what successful people do, and the genius of the culture formed in the rice paddies is that hard work gave those in the fields a way to find meaning in the midst of great uncertainty and poverty. That lesson has served Asians well in many endeavors but rarely so perfectly as in the case of mathematics.

5. Hark work and concentration correlate with math skills

Every four years, an international group of educators administers a comprehensive mathematics and science test to elementary and junior high students around the world. It’s the TIMSS, and the point of the TIMSS is to compare the educational achievement of one country with another’s.
When students sit down to take the TIMSS exam, they also have to fill out a questionnaire. It asks them all kinds of things, such as what their parents’ level of education is, and what their views about math are, and what their friends are like. It’s not a trivial exercise. It’s about 120 questions long. In fact, it is so tedious and demanding that many students leave as many as ten or twenty questions blank.
What do you think happens if you compare the questionnaire rankings with the math rankings on the TIMSS? They are exactly the same. In other words, countries whose students are willing to concentrate and sit still long enough and focus on answering every single question in an endless questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving math problems.
Boe’s point is that we could predict precisely the order in which every country would finish in the Math Olympics without asking a single math question. All we would have to do is give them some task measuring how hard they were willing to work. In fact, we wouldn’t even have to give them a task. We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work.
So, which places are at the top of both lists? The answer shouldn’t surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. They are the kinds of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away in the rice paddies three thousand hours a year, said things to one another like “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.”

6. Asian schools don’t have long summer vacations

But in Western agriculture, the opposite is true. Unless a wheat- or cornfield is left fallow every few years, the soil becomes exhausted. Every winter, fields are empty. The hard labor of spring planting and fall harvesting is followed, like clockwork, by the slower pace of summer and winter. This is the logic the reformers applied to the cultivation of young minds.
We formulate new ideas by analogy, working from what we know toward what we don’t know, and what the reformers knew were the rhythms of the agricultural seasons. A mind must be cultivated. But not too much, lest it be exhausted. And what was the remedy for the dangers of exhaustion? The long summer vacation — a peculiar and distinctive American legacy that has had profound consequences for the learning patterns of the students of the present day.
When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. The reading scores of the rich kids, by contrast, go up by a whopping 52.49 points. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.
Suddenly the causes of Asian math superiority become even more obvious. Students in Asian schools don’t have long summer vacations. Why would they? Cultures that believe that the route to success lies in rising before dawn 360 days a year are scarcely going to give their children three straight months off in the summer. The school year in the United States is, on average, 180 days long. The South Korean school year is 220 days long. The Japanese school year is 243 days long.
The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it. For its poorest students, America doesn’t have a school problem. It has a summer vacation problem.

The book shows the example of KIPP schools which currently teach 80,000 kids all over United States.

KIPP schools decided to bring the lessons of the rice paddy to the American inner city.
“Saturdays they come in nine to one. In the summer, it’s eight to two.” By summer, Levin was referring to the fact that KIPP students do three extra weeks of school, in July. These are, after all, precisely the kind of lower-income kids who Alexander identified as losing ground over the long summer vacation, so KIPP’s response is simply to not have a long summer vacation.
“What that extra time does is allow for a more relaxed atmosphere,” Corcoran said, after the class was over. “I find that the problem with math education is the sink-or-swim approach. Everything is rapid fire, and the kids who get it first are the ones who are rewarded. So there comes to be a feeling that there are people who can do math and there are people who aren’t math people.
A typical student will get up at five-forty-five in the morning, go in on Saturdays, and do homework until eleven at night. In return, KIPP promises that it will take kids like her who are stuck in poverty and give them a chance to get out. It will get 84 percent of them up to or above their grade level in mathematics. On the strength of that performance, 90 percent of KIPP students get scholarships to private or parochial high schools instead of having to attend their own desultory high schools in the Bronx. And on the strength of that high school experience, more than 80 percent of KIPP graduates will go on to college, in many cases being the first in their family to do so.
Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.