Educators have long been concerned about the math learning gap between America and China: children in China and other East Asian countries outperform their American peers on various math tasks (e.g., counting, arithmetic, algebra, & geometry). To maintain America’s national competitiveness, educators and parents have been trying to figure out what exactly cause such a huge learning gap. In her controversial book titled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, Amy Chua, a Chinese-American law professor from Yale, talked about her Eastern-style parenting and suggested that practice might be the key for children to excel. However, a study recently published in Psychological Science has provided evidence that the learning gap cannot be explained entirely by Chinese children’s “over practice.”
In Chua’s family, her daughters were required (or “pushed out of love”？) to practice quite a lot. Here is a provocative story told by Chua in an interview: When Chua’s daughter Lulu was 10 years old, Lulu once got a bad grade in a math test. Lulu came home and said to her mom, “I hate math! I am bad at math!” Chua, who expected her daughters to be two years ahead of their classmates in Math, could not accept this “excuse.” Instead, Chua made practice questions and drilled them with Lulu for a week. Lulu’s practice soon paid off. She got a good grade in the next test, and math eventually became her favorite subject. Her classmates call her “math wit.”
Let’s now put aside the seemingly tough-as-nails disciplinarian role that Chua plays. Practice, nevertheless, is NOT the entire story about the math learning gap. The findings from the study by Siegler and Mu indicate that the gap between Chinese and U.S. children on both practiced and unpracticed math tasks are substantial even before the children begin elementary school.
To avoid any potential practice effect, Siegler and Mu used a novel and presumably unpracticed math task. The Chinese kindergartners’ performance in this task were comparable to those of U.S. children 1 to 2 years more advanced in school.
Therefore, even before Chinese children enter formal education system, their mathematical knowledge is superior not only when tested with familiar problems, which Chinese parents present to their children more often than U.S. parents do, but also when tested with unpracticed problems, such as number-line estimation, which were novel to the children in both countries. Therefore, lack of practice is not the simple reason for American children’s disadvantage in math.
Siegler, R., & Mu, Y. (2008). Chinese Children Excel on Novel Mathematics Problems Even Before Elementary School. Psychological Science, 19 (8), 759-763 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02153.x