China’s math mem­o­riza­tion method adds up to higher scores

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - OPINION - Es­ther Cepeda Es­ther J. Cepeda Colum­nist

Here’s a shout-out to fel­low gray-hairs who learned math the “old-fash­ioned” way, by mem­o­riz­ing sim­ple for­mu­las along with facts about ad­di­tion and mul­ti­pli­ca­tion. This tech­nique is anath­ema in to­day’s class­rooms.

But might the old ways ever come back into vogue?

I would have said “when pigs fly,” but then I read Lenora Chu’s can’t-put-down book “Lit­tle Sol­diers: An Amer­i­can Boy, a Chi­nese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.” Chu writes about her first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence with the alarm­ing — and ul­ti­mately ef­fec­tive — Chi­nese way of ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren.

I picked up Chu’s book out of mere cu­rios­ity about what it must be like to work as a jour­nal­ist while try­ing to raise a fam­ily in a coun­try so dif­fer­ent from our own. And while the de­tails of Chu’s son Rainey’s dif­fi­cult start at an ex­clu­sive Shang­hai preschool are en­thralling, the real story is about how Chi­nese cul­ture helps ex­plain the coun­try’s con­sis­tent dom­i­nance of the Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Student As­sess­ment (PISA).

The se­cret is, ob­vi­ously, that it’s a test-crazy coun­try. But those tests are laid upon foun­da­tional prin­ci­ples as rev­er­ence for teach­ers, re­spect for math and a firm be­lief in the trans­for­ma­tive power of hard work.

“China af­fords teach­ers more sta­tus than any other coun­try, a global ed­u­ca­tion non­profit found in a 2013 sur­vey (though I had proof enough in the jit­ter that over­takes my hands when I talk to Rainey’s teach­ers),” Chu writes.

It goes far be­yond mere pro­fes­sional sta­tus. Ac­cord­ing to Chu, do­ing well in school is “the ul­ti­mate way to re­spect your par­ents, since good grades and test scores are the path to fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, and the abil­ity to pro­vide for” par­ents in old age.

A child’s obe­di­ence to and re­spect for el­ders trans­fers to teach­ers, whose author­ity is ab­so­lute and never ques­tioned.

In ad­di­tion to the much-ma­ligned rat race of gru­el­ing stan­dard­ized test­ings is the Chi­nese at­ti­tude to­ward abil­ity.

The Chi­nese be­lieve in luck and fate, but their guid­ing phi­los­o­phy is that any­thing is pos­si­ble if you work hard enough.

Teach­ers and par­ents start with the as­sump­tion that ev­ery child is able to be­come a dis­ci­plined, fo­cused learner. Chu writes that chil­dren are then re­minded at ev­ery turn that “if there’s a goal worth ac­com­plish­ing, day-to-day life might be ab­so­lutely and mis­er­ably un­pleas­ant for a spell . ... Hard work is the most im­por­tant thing.”

In stark con­trast, Amer­i­cans are con­di­tioned to be­lieve in in­nate abil­ity — hered­i­tary traits that ei­ther make you good at some­thing or not, re­gard­less of ef­fort. This is, at least in part, why Amer­i­cans are unashamed to go around say­ing “I’m not good at math,” whereas the Chi­nese, as a whole cul­ture, value math ev­ery bit as much as we value read­ing abil­ity.

Lastly, of course, are the dif­fer­ences — rigor, ex­treme chal­lenge — in the ac­tual meth­ods for teach­ing sub­jects like sci­ence and math. And, yes, it’s true the Chi­nese use — gasp! — rote mem­o­riza­tion, skills drilling and rep­e­ti­tion to teach the fun­da­men­tals.

Mu­sic to this teacher’s ears! I’ve seen the dam­age done to stu­dents who can’t thrive with­out struc­tured in­struc­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties to prac­tice un­til at­tain­ing true mas­tery.

Not all of China’s meth­ods are trans­ferrable (or de­sir­able) out­side their cul­ture, but the United King­dom is pi­lot­ing di­rect in­struc­tion of whole-class, mas­tery math teach­ing.

That’s be­cause, as Chu quotes an ar­chi­tect of the PISA aca­demic rank­ings, “‘The Chi­nese mem­o­rize what needs mem­o­riz­ing and use the rest of the time to go very deep in con­cep­tual un­der­stand­ing.’”

If it works for U.K. stu­dents and they pivot to­ward deep un­der­stand­ing of math and away from mile-wide, inch-deep cur­ricu­lum, us old­sters may stand a good chance at be­ing able to help our grand­kids mem­o­rize their math facts some­day.

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