/ 23 May 2024

Are Chinese better at maths than the rest of us?

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Because maths is difficult and the curriculum is heavy, a clearer focus and reinforced practice (on important content) seem to work better for producing a good result, at least in the short run. (Photo by Servais Mont/Getty Images)

Maths is crucial for learners’ success beyond the school level but, for many, learning and achieving in the subject is a struggle. And the general opinion is that Chinese are good at maths.

Seeing maths as a difficult subject is not a contemporary phenomenon. In ancient Greece and Egypt, it was confined to higher learning institutions.

In the 18th century, maths was offered at the senior level of secondary schools and vocational training but only for upper social strata. In the second half of the 20th century, maths education was extended to lower secondary and primary schools, as well as to girls and those with low social status. 

The view that Chinese excel at maths is extended to Asians in general. Some give proof to this by pointing to Chinese’s superb maths performance in international benchmark tests.

Many scholars have explored the reasons and suggest Chinese are trained to be good at taking tests and that they have high expectations of their children. Coupled with the tradition of filial piety, Chinese children will try to do well no matter what they themselves feel or think. Parents also invest in private tutoring and extra classes. And China’s large population might have also contributed to the more intense competition. 

The comparison

One of my students (a South African teaching in China) and I (a Chinese teaching at a South Africa university) decided to conduct a seemingly nonsensical comparison of what is happening in these two countries. 

Underneath the surface difference, we notice commonality between the two countries. For example, both have had long traditions with maths. In South Africa, maths concepts and patterns are embedded in beadwork and decorative geometric patterns. 

Both countries acknowledge the value of maths and assign a high status to maths achievers. Both acknowledge that learning maths is hard, that the curriculum is heavy and there is often a negative attitude toward learning it. 

And both countries have undergone big curriculum reforms in recent decades, broadly towards the global norm of active learning. South Africa is more advanced in its shift towards learner-centeredness, with a much greater emphasis on the importance of intrinsic motivation. 

We also looked into the practice in the foundation phase. It is well known that early numeracy and later maths achievements are correlated. So, we selected samples of different kinds of schools: public no fee, public fee charging and private schools in South Africa, and public and private schools in China (all public schools in China charge almost nothing). We approached teachers, parents and officials in education departments. 

Not surprisingly, the two countries are more different than similar, especially in the details. For example, all parents have high expectations for their children. But South African parents do not often set targets or directly communicate their expectations beforehand; they only give rewards when good results are reported.

In contrast, Chinese parents are more explicit and straightforward. Chinese parents also started introducing maths at home much earlier (ages three to four) while South Africans tend to only start when the child starts to go to school (age seven). 

Again, all parents assist with homework, but some South African parents report this to be challenging, both in terms of content and competing commitments or responsibilities, so they often incorporate maths concepts more informally, for example during shopping.

Chinese parents, on the other hand, tend to focus more on the formal academic side, spending time practising maths problems with their children. They also complain that their children get too little homework. While attending extra tutorials doesn’t see discrimination along socioeconomic status lines in China, this is the case in South Africa. 

At schools aligned with a greater emphasis on intrinsic motivation, South African teachers focus more on learner participation, trying to make mathematics interesting by making it more fun. Unfortunately, this often takes more time than what is available. Chinese teachers, on the other hand, offer extrinsic rewards more often, like giving sweets. 

What is more interesting, however, is our discovery of the similarity between South African private schools and Chinese schools. Teachers do not shy away from control and do not insist that students figure out solutions themselves. They are less concerned about making maths fun.

They often summarise for the students, to make content easier for them to understand and memorise. They also spend more time demonstrating how a problem can be solved, often through different methods. All these, they say, help to push the content faster and thus cover the curriculum’s heavy load better. This group also focuses more on creating practice opportunities and giving timely, detailed and individualised feedback (both in class and for homework).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Few will argue the appeal of a learner-centred approach or important intrinsic motivation. But maybe these are not essential in driving maths achievement, as the case of the Chinese schools and South African private schools shows. Instead, because maths is difficult and the curriculum is heavy, a clearer focus and reinforced practice (on important content) seem to work better for producing a good result, at least in the short run. 

Also, because maths is accumulative, building a solid foundation, whether the students enjoy it or not, whether through external reward or not, might have been the counter-intuitive finding from this study. A solid foundation triggers a sense of confidence, which, in turn, kicks off a virtuous reinforcement loop of engagement and achievement, providing further motivation for students to tackle mathematics’ learning challenges. 

So, what are the best ways to build a solid foundation? The lesson seems to be to go back to the basics; practise, practise and practise. In this sense, the role of both homework and starting maths at an early age might also become key means to achieve this end.

Ke Yu is an associate professor in Education Leadership and Management, at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.