Over the years students from Asian countries have consistently performed better than western society students on exams that test math and science skills. It has happened so often that some have come to the conclusion that Asian students are just naturally brighter than their western counterpart.
When one exams this closely it is not the genetic makeup of individuals but the environment and culture that provides an advantage or disadvantage on how students develop their skills in the various fields of knowledge.
Western society does not take a back seat to another part of the world when it comes to producing geniuses. Our history and current society is laced with individuals who have advanced the knowledge of the world at an incredible rate during their lifetime. However, many of them developed in spit of the education system not because of it.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, he examines the difference between our society and those of Asia. All advanced societies begin with the development of agriculture. Agriculture is what turns societies from hunter and gathers to a more sophisticated society capable of developing an artisan class and over time a more educated society.
His theory indicates the method of farming in Asia contributed to a more diligent way of life. Most Asian countries depend on rice, as a stable to their diet and producing rice requires a much different approach that raising a grain crop. Rice paddies need to be planned with precision, are small in size, and have to be tended daily and often require many man-hours per day. To be successful in growing rice the work needs to go on throughout the year rain or shine.
Contrast this to growing grain crops which tend to be much larger and much more seasonal in nature. The time commitment in producing a crop is less. That does not mean that producing a wheat crop does not require hard work it’s just that the work is less intense over a full year than those working in a rice paddy.
It is little wonder that Asian school years are longer than those in Western societies as they come from a culture that long hours at a project is the norm and the expectation.
The second factor that Gladwell examines is language and how it can affect your math skills. He uses the example of listing the following numbers 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. He then asks you to read them aloud and then look away and spend twenty seconds memorizing the sequence then repeat the sequence. If you speak English there is a 50% chance you will remember the sequence perfectly. If you are Chinese more likely 100% of the time you will nail the sequence. Why?
When we see numbers we translate them into our language 4 becomes four, 8 becomes eight and so on. The longer the word the longer it takes us to memorize. In Mandarin the largest word for numbers 0 to 9 contains only three letters and most only two. This language difference allows a Chinese student to remember a sequence much quicker and more accurately than a student from a western society.
Then there is a difference in how we add numbers. If we asked you to add 57 to 31 in your head you would form a mental picture of the two numbers above one another and then begin the process of adding the single numbers seven and one and then the five and three to come up with 88. Asian students are taught to break the numbers down like this 5 tens and seven ones plus 3 tens plus one one giving 88. Remember the numbers in the Chinese language are much shorter than those in English.
Traditional when we go to the grocery store and try to keep track of what we are spending we will add items in our head. So three items cost $1.98, 2.98, and 5.98 what is the total cost? Most people again line up the items in their mind and begin to add them up. But others will take a short cut and round off the items, add them, then subtract six cents. Try it! You will find it is much quicker and just as accurate.
There isn’t much we can do about the language gap in understanding math, but we can change our education system to better take advantage of acquiring knowledge and skills. It is doubtful we would ever extend our school year too much beyond 200 school days. The ramifications of such a drastic change would have too great a stress on students, parents and the tourist industry to even contemplate.
However, the idea of breaking down the school year into four even quarters does have some appeal. It would allow those families that enjoy doing things at different times of the year the opportunity to do those activities be they hunting, skiing, scuba diving, or whatever without affecting their child’s education.
In addition it would reduce the gap in the time a student is away from the classroom and reduce the need for additional review of knowledge taught in a previous session. This would allow teachers more time to present additional knowledge and work on skills.
We need to learn the same lesson of how our farmers learned to expand their fields and increase their yield and at the same time reduced the number of workers needed to harvest a crop, by not only working harder but smarter.
We are rapidly coming to a crossroad where if we do not consider changing how we educate our youth we will no longer be able to claim our education system is among the best in the world. Those who change to meet the needs of the future will soon pass those who insist on remaining in the past. It will not matter if you are growing rice or wheat!