Teaching methods are one reason—but the English language doesn’t helpby David Tall / April 24, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
“What is the secret to Asia’s attainment in maths—and can Britain learn it?”
© Mark Bowden/ istock
In a series of international mathematics tests in 2012, British teens reached only the average score. Shanghai’s school children came top of the list, with results that showed them to be the equivalent of three years of schooling ahead of Britain’s children. The UK government is now bringing over 60 maths teachers from Shanghai to introduce Chinese teaching methods to Britain, in the hope that this will raise standards.
But why are the Chinese better at learning maths, at least in the Chinese cities that took part in the tests? And can that success be learned, or transplanted into British schools? The signs are that some of it can, but there are limits.
The cultural differences between the two countries have an immediate impact on maths. The learning of maths in Chinese is significantly different from learning the subject in English and some of the differences may not be easily transferable.
For example, number names in Chinese clearly relate directly to place value. Where we count “eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…”, the Chinese equivalent translates into “eight, nine, ten, ten-one, ten-two…” While our words “eleven” and “twelve” relate to the 10 fingers on our hands using the old English “ei lief on” meaning “one left over” and “twe lief” (two left), few people know this or use it to support the meaning of place value. Research shows that English-speaking children learning early arithmetic are often a year or so behind those learning in Chinese.
A second difference is the length of the spoken words, which are shorter in Mandarin Chinese than in English. “Seven” is “qi,” for example, and “one hundred” is simply “bai.” Even with single syllable words—“one, two, three” is “yi, er, san” in Chinese—there are subtle differences, such as the long “thr” in “three,” that mean they take longer to say. Travelling around Taiwan speaking about learning maths, I used to challenge my translator to count to 10 in Chinese as I counted in English. I could only reach around six by the time my translator finished.