Friday, February 11, 2005


I spent this morning working on Worldcon questionnaires (if you are coming and you want to be programmed, go fill yours in) so no book to blog, but instead a short "thought".

In the maths material I read this weekend I came across a study on why Japanese and Chinese children are better at maths. Here is what the western observers noted.

1. In elementary schools 40% of the time was spent on maths. This remained constant. In US school, less than 20% of the time is spent on maths.
2. Japanese and Chinese teachers stick to one topic at at time, teach to the whole class, and keep them going over the same problems 'til they get it.
3. Japanese and Chinese students are regularly called to work on the blackboard when they are having difficulty. The teacher supervises them and their classmates comment. When they get it right, they get a round of applause. Far from regarding it as humiliating it is seen as helpful.
4. Japanese and Chinese teachers teach classes of forty or more but teach all students the same thing in depth, rather than many different things in breadth.
5. Japanese and Chinese teachers do not believe in "individual styles of learning" or that some children have more "native ability" than others. They believe that maths talent can be *taught*.

I read this the day before I heard an item on the Canadian news about the need for child care to be tailored to "children's individual interests". My take on this -- when faced with the perennial student cry of "why do we have to do this"--is that if you only introduce a 2 yr old to the things they like at the age of 2, how are they going to become 3yr olds? There is nothing more amazing than trying something you thought you *weren't'* interested in, and discovering it will be your life's work.

My own culture (Jewish) is a lot closer to the Japanese and Chinese students, and I was interested to hear that Stanley Kaplan, the man who undermined the idea that SATs tests could not be prepared for (ie they rested on a notion of "innate talent") also had the same idea. Recently research at US and UK universities has driven home the same point: the only reliable indicator of how well a student will do in a subject is how committed they are, and how hard they work.

I missed out one point in the summary of the article. Although at the age of seven Chinese and Japanese students spend the same time in school at US students, by the age of 15 they are receiving at least seven hours a week more. It sort of explains why these countries now fill our graduate schools.


Anonymous muninnhuginn said...

Sounds like a fascinating study. Is it available online somewhere?

That whole assumption that anyone can learn, that "talent can be taught", is an interesting one. If you've not come across it, there's a similar basis to the Suzuki method for teaching musical intruments too (speaking as a "Suzuki mum") which seems to display similar traits of concentrating on depth rather than breadth and on repetition of tasks. It also appears to be "inclusive" (which is after all what we're meant to be, isn't it?): one of the children my daughter takes music with has a learning difficulty but is following the same programme, and whilst I'm sure the individual teaching varies in detail as it does for each child, overall it is the same and there's no sign of expectations as to what the child does being any different. I think there are similar examples in Suzuki's "Nurtured by Love" too.

4:14 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

I learned violin by the suzuki method and never really became proficeient *but* and heres the rub, it gave me a musical experience I might not have had, because when I was diangosed as dyslexic 20 yrs later, it turns out I am most severely dyslexic with muscial notation. I would never have got anywhere at all with the standard method.

But back to the point: it's fascinating that an emphasis on indiviuality and self-esteem can inadvertantly turn into a closing down of opportunities. The study was from1982, but I'm going to look out for similar studies. I know that this has affected the reforms to UK education. Mostly the word "Blair" makes me retch, but the single most significant change he made was to say "there is no such thing as a child whose background means they cannot expect to achieve in school". Of course, I wish he'd put the resources where his mouth is, but at least it is no longer assumed that immigrants and the working classes are "naturally" stupid.

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