Fri | Jun 22, 2018

Why Jamaican kids trail Asian kids in math

Published:Sunday | March 24, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Professor Claude Packer

Claude Packer, Guest Columnist

Some educators in Jamaica are advocating for Jamaican secondary-school students to write the examination Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to compare the results with comparable students' performance in this examination in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, etc.

One needs to consider cultural influences, though, to ensure data gathered can be analysed with meaning, without certain considerations for possible statistical adjustments.

In the English-speaking system, we probably should have learnt to count as follows: oneteen, twoteen, threeteen, fourteen, fiveteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, (Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success). This makes sense when counting; instead, we say: eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, etc.


Counting in the English system is very irregular. This is not so in China, Japan and Korea because the nature of their language structure accommodates meaningful communication in elementary mathematics. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one, twelve is ten-two and twenty-four is two-tens-four, and so on.

This means that Asian children learn to count much faster than we do. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to 40, while on average, Caribbean four-year-olds can count to 15. By age five, a Caribbean child is one year behind his/her Chinese counterpart in the most fundamental of mathematical skills.

For fractions, it is literally 'out of five parts, take four'. This is telling you conceptually what the fraction means. The language is automatically differentiating between the numerator and the denominator. So when it comes to mathematics learning, Asians have a built-in advantage. Gladwel, therefore, suggests that:

"Being good in mathematics may also be rooted in a group's culture. Cultural legacies matter ... ; Numbers that can be said in a quarter-second (in Chinese) as opposed to a third of a second (in English); it's hard not to wonder how many other cultural legacies have an impact on our 21st-century intellectual tasks."

Stanislas Dehaene, in The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, explains:

"Four is 'si' and 7 is 'qi' in Chinese, which take less time to say and store in memory, than four and seven in English ... . Cantonese dialect of Chinese brevity grants residents of Hong Kong a rocketing memory span of about 10 digits in their cognitive structure."


The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions such as addition much more easily; for example, 38 + 21 in the English system is 1 + 8. In the Chinese system, it is three-tens-eight and two-tens-one, which is five-tens-nine.

Karen Fuson ('Issues in Place-value and Multi-digit Addition and Subtraction Learning and Teaching', Journal for Research in Mathematics Education) emphasised:

"The Asian system is transparent. I think it makes the whole attitude toward math different. Instead of being a rote learning thing, there's a pattern I can figure out. There is an expectation that I can do this."

The dislike for mathematics among many Jamaican children starts within grade three and grade four. This may be largely caused by the fact that math does not seem to make sense then; its linguistic structure is clumsy and some of its basic rules seem very arbitrary and complicated. Asian children do not share the same views.


They can store more numbers in their cognitive structure than students whose major language is English and perform calculations faster. The way fractions are expressed in their language corresponds exactly to what a fraction is, which is a tremendous asset when performing more complicated tasks for problem solving. So they enjoy mathematics more and thus are willing to try harder at its challenging tasks and spend more time exploring its concepts and practising its principles and methods, which facilitate the possibility of them being better problem solvers.

According to Gladwell:

"We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. But the differences between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different - that being good at mathematics may also be rooted in a group's culture."

It would be very interesting and informative to see how some of our Jamaican children would perform in mathematics with a good knowledge of the Chinese language within this group's culture.

The causes of Asian mathematics superiority become even more obvious culturally from the following observations. Students in Asian schools do not have long summer breaks. The length of the school year in the USA is, on average, 180 days; Jamaica is 190 days; the South Korean school year is 220 days; and the Japanese school year is 243 days long.

One of the questions asked by the test markers of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study - a comprehensive mathematics and science test to compare the educational achievement of countries - examinations is how many of the algebra, calculus and geometry questions covered subject matter that they had previously studied in class. The Japanese 12th-graders replied 92 per cent, while their American counterparts' comparable figure was 54 per cent. Less time is spent in the Asian culture unlearning a subject that is very ungrateful when one does not devote enough time to practising and applying its concepts, principles and algorithms.

Professor Claude Packer is president of The Mico University College. Email feedback to and