George Lim: Why Asian kids succeed

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Asian kids are good at maths because their school systems are very competitive. Photo / Doug Sherring
Asian kids are good at maths because their school systems are very competitive. Photo / Doug Sherring

Have you ever wondered why Asians kids are doing so well in maths and science at schools?

In many schools in the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, Asian students dominate the academic space, particularly in maths and science.

The TIMSS Survey is an international assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of fourth grade and eighth grade students of 50 countries worldwide.

In the 2007 results the top five nations in both maths and science are from East Asia - Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan.

Another survey from the OECD which covered 15-year-olds in 70 countries showed almost the same results. Seven of the top 10 countries are from Asia. What accounts for this?

There are many theories. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the best-sellers The Tipping Point and Outliers, believes Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean give children the edge in maths. He thinks English is an irrational language when it comes to counting.

One would need to learn 28 unique words to count up to 100 in English while in the Chinese, Japanese or Korean languages, it would be just 11 - one to 10 and 100.

Other people say maybe it is because Asians have better memories because their languages require much memorising. I even hear people saying Asians are born mathematicians.

All these factors could be possible reasons why Asian kids are good at maths and science, but from my experience, I believe there are four main explanations.

Their parents' influence: Asian parents prefer their children to excel in maths and science than to be good in arts, languages or sports.

They push their children to do well in maths and science so they can get university degrees in engineering, medicine, accounting, or IT instead of psychology, law, sociology, political science or the performing arts. They start teaching them maths when they are young and send them to tuition classes after regular school hours.

One UK study said the percentage of students taking degrees in STEM subjects ( Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in China is around 50 per cent while in Britain it is 25 per cent and even lower, at 16 per cent, in the US.

The second factor is the extra time and effort Asian children put in.

If you go to Korea, Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong, you'll see almost every student going to several tutoring places, right after school and they do not return home until past dinnertime. Most of them would be attending tutoring classes in maths.

The third reason why Asian kids are good at maths is that their maths and science curricula are much harder than those of their counterparts in other countries.

A study by the British Society of Chemists showed examples of the types of problems given to first year university students in the UK and pre-university students in China.

The one for Chinese was three-dimensional but the one for the British was one-dimensional.

The final reason Asian kids are good at maths is because their school systems are very competitive and every year around nine million high school students in China take entrance exams to compete for only three million university places. Only one in three high school students can get into university.

This is the reason why there are now 500,000 Chinese students studying overseas.

I believe the theory that Asian kids are inherently good at maths and science is a myth.

Their achievement has little to do with natural intelligence, their language or better memory.

Rather it is similar to why Dan Carter is so accurate in his goalkicking. He must have practised each kick a few thousand times since he was very young.

If western parents encourage their children to study maths and science and invest time in learning these subjects, they will also be good at maths and science.

There is no secret to success. It is plain Practice, Practice and Practice.

George Lim is a director of Abacus Maths Academy.

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- NZ Herald

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