Math: myth vs. reality

Why do students in Asian countries consistently outperform their American counterparts in math? Do girls have inferior mathematical skills? Several studies yield results that may provide surprising answers to these questions.

Many adhere to the myth that Asian students are inherently better in math than Western students. However, the method of imparting the mathematical message may account for a large part of the gap in performance. A recent book entitled Made to Stick reported on a research study in the early 1990’s that explored this issue. A group of forty schools participated in the study- ten each in Taiwan and Japan, and twenty in the United States. “The researchers found that all the teachers used rote recall quite a bit; it was standard procedure in at least half of the lessons observed in every country. But other techniques varied greatly among the three countries.” The biggest difference appeared to be that the teachers in the Asian countries used many more concrete examples in their classrooms to reinforce abstract mathematical concepts. For example, they inserted a real-world concept like money or sports to illustrate an equation. A typical example occurred in an elementary Japanese classroom: “The teacher placed on a desk 5 rows of 10 tiles each. Then she took away 3 rows of 10 tiles. She asked a student how many tiles were left, and he gave the correct answer: 20. The teacher then asked the students how they knew that this was a subtraction problem.” She had provided her students with a visual image of subtraction.” This style of questioning, called “computing in context” is the opposite of rote learning and “occurred about twice as much in Asia as in the US (61% vs. 31%).” This method helped the abstract concept to stick.

Onto myth #2- a previous belief that girls do not perform as well as boys in math suddenly appears incorrect (or at least outdated). While the difference in achievement may have been true about twenty years ago, The National Science Foundation has just released a study that indicates otherwise. “Enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance,” said Marcia C. Linn of the University of California. Girls did as well as boys in solving complex math problems, and they are now enrolling in the more advanced math courses.” While boys still outperform girls on the math portion the SAT, researchers explained the reason. “Since more girls than boys go to college, about 100,000 more girls than boys take the test, including lower-achieving girls who bring down the girls’ average score.”

Some myths take longer to disappear than others. Teachers and counselors can help eradicate this one by advising girls to pursue careers in math and science.

Leave a Reply