EE Education Associate John Cronin reflects on how language could explain the gap between the brightest maths students here and in Asian countries and what we can learn from innovative project-based learning from around the world. This article was first written for the Innovation Unit.

Do Asian Countries really Produce better Mathematicians?

The recent finding from the Institute of Education, University of London that many of our brightest Maths students are 2 years behind their Asian counterparts by the age of 16 was little surprise to most. According to an analysis of performance in international maths tests, at age 10 the ablest students in English schools match those in the leading Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan but somehow they fall behind by the time they do their GCSEs. Political commentators regularly point to the ‘winning formula’ of a highly valued education system (as shown through high teacher salaries and parental expectations), an extended and disciplined school day and a challenging curriculum. The report recommends that Maths should be reformed at the primary stage and the curriculum made more challenging at secondary level. However, academic research in linguistics suggests it might be a little unfair to assume we have an inferior education system; instead, we should point the finger at the English language, which is ill-equipped for the learning of Maths.

Is speaking English an excuse for having bad maths?

Read these numbers aloud; 4,8,5,3,9,7,6. Then look away and spend 20 seconds trying to memorise them. Now, try and say them aloud again. Did you manage it? Well done if so, you have joined an exclusive club of just 50% of people who can remember that sequence perfectly (okay, maybe ‘exclusive’ flatters this particular club). If you didn’t quite manage it, you should really learn to speak Chinese. Why you ask? Well, Chinese speakers would almost certainly get it right every single time because it’s easier for them to remember numbers. As humans we have a 2 second memory capacity for digits but whereas the English language has relatively longer number-words (‘four’ and ‘seven’), the Chinese language has very short number words (4 is ‘si’ and 7 is ‘qi’); this means Chinese speakers can easily remember digits and in turn learn to count faster (a four year old Chinese child can count to 40, while a four year old American only 15).

Better number memory can be said for other Asian countries too and with a far more logical and regular numbering system (11 is 10 & 1 for example in Asian languages), children in Asian schools have been shown to learn basic functions such as fractions much easier too. This simplicity makes Maths more accessible conceptually e.g. The English language says ‘three fifths’ while the Chinese language is literally ‘out of five parts, take three’; quite simply, Maths just ‘makes sense’. If Maths teachers here are to hear fewer cries of ‘I don’t get it!’ what are we to do?

Should we do Maths the Asian way?

Aside from teaching Chinese en-mass (worth considering of course), is there any way our students can catch up with their Asian peers? Interestingly, Elizabeth Truss from the Department for Education appears to think there could be lessons to learn from the education system in top Asian countries, claiming that reforms are already underway to introduce tougher discipline, more rigorous exams and a more academically demanding curriculum. However, while a more relentless, exams-focused approach to teaching Maths and any other subject may well ‘make’ students get better, will they want to keep getting better when there isn’t a test on it? This approach clearly calls for students to see learning as a means to an end, not something necessarily to be enjoyed or genuinely engaged with. The report from the Institute of Education focused greatly on the significance of the maths scores and at the same time emphasised the importance of ‘Having a pool of very highly skilled individuals is vital for technological innovation and long-run economic growth’. These ‘highly skilled individuals’ will not be made up of test-weary learners but rather those who have had the opportunity to contextualise their learning in relation to the real world.

Can Maths be innovative?

High Tech High, a US based school development network was set up with the aim of preparing students for the high-tech economy that awaits them by bringing real world projects that combine academic and technical skills into the classroom. For example, 5 and 6 year olds might learn about basic ideas of ratio and proportion by researching ‘flight’ through creating life size models of birds and then working out what a flying human being would need to look like. Seeing the relevance of density, mass and volume came easy to 11 and 12 year olds who were set the challenge of creating a submarine that could float, sink and then float again in 30cm of water. Cross curricular approaches, rarely seen here higher than primary school level have been developed across all ages in High Tech High schools. One group of 14 and 15 year olds were tasked with a 4 week project about the Crusades. They explored projectile motion in weaponry in maths and physics, before explaining how weapons were used in the Crusades by creating a movie detailing the major events. This enquiry-based learning approach has been rewarded with greatly improved access to top universities from graduates of these schools and most importantly a belief that their students will have the work-ready experience to innovate outside the classroom.

Here at Enabling Enterprise, I’ve seen the success of this project-based approach in maths first hand. We believe the learning of maths is deeper and more engaging when it is contextualised through a project that has real outcomes. One project that Enabling Enterprise has designed with our school partners sets students the challenge of designing a new chocolate brand and packaging by applying their understanding of measurement, shape, and data handling. Another project designed with the support of construction firm Argent, has students applying numeracy, proportion and scale to a building model good enough to feature in the Kings Cross development. Students then get to share their ideas with experts from the industry during a trip to Argent themselves.

With my colleagues at Enabling Enterprise, we see young people enjoy their learning when they see a relevant purpose to it. If our ablest maths students are to be the leading problem-solvers, innovators and ‘highly skilled individuals’ needed for the technological world, more testing or a more disciplined school day is not the answer. Similarly, our somewhat irregular numbering system and lengthy words are not an excuse to fall behind. Only through giving our young people the opportunity to apply their learning outside the classroom will they give themselves the opportunity of applying it in the future.

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