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December 9, 2012

Why Asians are Better than Americans at Math

Jerry Sun:

Since elementary school, we learned basic mathematics skills as little children. As we grew older, our math improved as we learned new concepts. Yet have people ever wondered why Americans lag behind Eastern Asian countries, such as China, in math? The answer might not easily be what you think:

The answer lies not only in the practice that Asian students receive but also, surprisingly, in the language we speak. Examine the following numbers: 8,2,4,6,7,5,1. Now look away for twenty seconds, and try to memorize the order of the numbers presented. Research has shown that you have a 50% chance of accurately memorizing that sequence perfectly, if you speak English.

Yet for those who speak Chinese, it is almost assured that you will get that sequence right. The reason is not due to intelligence, but actually the phonetics of our languages. Our brain is programmed to store numbers in a repetitive loop that lasts for only a short period of time. Chinese speakers are able to fit those 7 numbers into that span of time, while English speakers cannot. Hence, the Chinese speakers can memorize those numbers at a much more efficient rate than English speakers. How is this important?

Posted by Jim Zellmer at December 9, 2012 4:31 AM
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Yes, it can't be that Americans are too lazy to do the work, could it? No, it must be something else, something simply out of our control. "Yeh, that's the ticket".

Is there an "Asian" joke similar to this one about the Jewish culture?

"When does a Jewish person become a viable human being?"
Answer: "After graduation from medical school".

To too many Americans, a viable human being is simply an accident of a complex chemical reaction and nothing more: "At conception". I really don't think that is enough.

Posted by: Larry Winkler at December 9, 2012 10:55 AM

I could not agree more with Larry's statement. And I find the argument simple, yet of high interest. For example, can you take that same logic (looking at Larry's first sentence) and apply it to the achievement gap that Madison and every other district in the country is struggling with?

"No, it must be something else."

Posted by: Parent4 at December 10, 2012 5:31 PM

I appreciate Parent4's support for my comment. I certainly think laziness is part of the problem for some students, but I have another thought on the reasons for the achievement gap that I have not seen directly stated, which I opine likely are the primary causes.

I cannot say I have come to a conclusion, or that my position has solidified, nor have I heard experts come to this conclusion, but I can say my reading of some professional and lay material has caused a strong hypothesis to gel. The primary cause of the achievement gap is the normal and expected physiological reactions to long term stress and traumatic experiences.

What sent me on this course was the high profile discussions over the past several years of PTSD and the descriptions of the behavioral effects on the person and their families. Others were medical literature and research on people living in poverty and the significantly higher incidences of diabetes, heart attack, high blood pressure and other markers of stress reactions, that they experienced compared to those living in comfortable circumstances.

Then there are many interesting books written by neurobiologists and neurologists, such as UW Madison's Richard Davidson, researcher and author Robert Sapolsky with his readable and entertaining book "Why don't Zebras get Ulcers". Another was a lecture and discussion thereafter by Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the book "Stroke of Insight", her presentation given at UW Madison a couple(?) of years ago, who discussed effect of stress on learning (they are incompatible).

Then there are some recent research reports that teachers have a significantly higher rate of anxiety disorders (including PTSD) than the general public, as do police officers.

Paul Tough's book "How Children Succeed" points to other sources on the effect of emotions and stress on learning. He points to a research project that developed the Adverse Childhood Experiences measure which researchers claim is a better predictor of success in school than cognitive tests such as IQ and achievement tests, and is in addition an excellent predictor of health issues, especially issues that correlate with trauma and normal physiological responses to stress.

Rereading "Meaningful Differences" by Hart and Risley, and "Mindset" by Carol Dweck, "Unequal Childhoods" by Annette Lareau, and even the classic "Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman, become more intelligible once physiological responses to stress and trauma is taken into account. That is, the simplistic solution of improving vocabulary and putting more books in the house or teaching of coping skills is not likely to work, when continual family and environmental stress is the prominent cause.

The VA has great resources also. They are, of course, more focussed on "shorter" term traumatic events causing PTSD rather than the long term and continual conditions in which the poor live. There are many references to treatment protocols.

Until the experts chime in, I'm of course in no position to claim my hypothesis is right, but at this time I find the argument compelling. It seems too many different sources of information are pointing in the same direction to ignore the connections.

Posted by: Larry Winkler at December 11, 2012 12:11 PM
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