Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers states we have different number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages.
It was interesting to see the news that primary schoolchildren in Britain will be using maths textbooks prepared by the Chinese to improve the English children’s proficiency in maths. Starting in January next year, primary schools in England will use Real Shanghai Mathematics — a set of 36 textbooks translated directly from Chinese into English. The books will be identical to those used in China, the only difference being that Chinese currency symbols will be replaced by English ones. Along with the books, maths teachers in English schools will adopt a teaching method similar to that used in China and other Asian countries. This method is known as the “mastery” method. In the West, teachers explain a concept and then give problems for the children to solve individually. In China, once the concept is taught, teachers pose a series of questions to children who are then expected to explain precisely both the solution and its underlying principles before the class.
Apart from bemoaning the fact that this was yet another golden opportunity in exports lost for marketing maths textbooks made in India, and that the Chinese had beaten us yet again, there are fundamental reasons why the Chinese along with some other Asian countries are so good in maths.
While the Chinese schoolchildren’s outstanding performance in an international standardised testing debut among a host of countries may have been the reason for the English educational authorities’ interest, the reasons for Chinese prowess in maths may have a more ancient lineage.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers suggests that this proficiency in maths may well be rooted in Chinese culture. Gladwell states we have different number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages. The number system in English is highly irregular. For double digit numbers we start with 10, 11, 12, and for the teens, 13, 14, 15 and so on. They have a more logical counting system in China, Japan and Korea. Here, 11 is 10-plus-one, 12 is 10-plus-two and 24 is two-10s-plus-four and so on.
This means that on an average, Asian children learn to count much faster that their Western counterparts. Research has now proved that on an average, four- year-old Chinese children can count up to 40, whereas Western four-year-olds can count only up to 15. By the time Western children reach the age of five, they are already a year behind the Chinese in counting. Gladwell quotes researchers to say that the attitude and learning systems regarding maths are different in the two cultures. In the West, it’s more of a rote learning system. In China and other Asian cultures, there is a logical pattern to learning maths based on a confidence and expectation that we can do this. In the West, frcations are expressed as 2/3rds, 3/4ths, and so on. In the Chinese system, it’s for every 3 parts, take 2 and for every 4 parts, take 3 and so on. Fractions expressed in Chinese corresponds to exactly what a fraction is. Researchers go on to say that Chinese children are able to hold more numbers in their heads, and as a result, they enjoy maths a little more, like to solve more problems, etc. Overall, the proficiency of Chinese children in maths is very high.
This proficiency in maths has also another learning ground — and this is outside the school classroom. Gladwell says that the Chinese system of paddy cultivation in rice fields is a great training ground for maths proficiency.
Gladwell says that rice paddies are “built”, and not “opened-up” as for wheat cultivation. Trees and undergrowth are not simply not recklessly cleared for rice farming as in wheat cultivation. Rice fields are either constructed from river plains and marshlands or painstakingly carved out from the hills or mountain-sides in a series of steps known as terrace cultivation. A rice paddy has to be irrigated, so channels need to be dug into the field from the nearest water source. This water flow would require to be adjusted so that the right amount of water would cover the plant. To prevent water from seeping away into the ground, a hard clay floor would have to be prepared. On top of this would be a soft layer of mud to plant the rice seedlings. The seedlings themselves would have been nurtured in a specially-prepared seedbed and then transplanted to the rice field as seedlings at the right time. The seedlings would be planted in carefully prepared rows and then nurtured.
Traditionally, rice cultivation in China was an all-family affair marked by the absence of mechanisation. The whole family took part in cultivation, specially the children. When the rice crop ripened, the whole family along with relatives and friends harvested the rice quickly so that there may be time for a second crop before winter.
Rice cultivation required a lot of effort and hard work if crop failure was to be avoided. China could not risk failure as it was an agricultural economy. More important, rice cultivation involved a series of steps carefully planned and “calculated”, with children being involved in every step. As a result, Chinese children counted the days and hours involved in each of the steps and took responsibility and initiative. Their heads were trained to hold numbers and they could do calculations faster than their counterparts in other cultures. Rice cultivation required long hours of hard work and children in rural China would often get up before dawn each day to work in the fields. As soon as the change of season, heralded spring, they were back in the paddy fields before dawn. The Chinese believed “those who rise before dawn each year to work cannot fail to make their family rich”. It made the children proficient in maths too.
The Mandapa, a Ritz luxury hotel in Bali, has a unique architectural design, literally carved out of a hillside with a valley in front. It has luxury rooms with breathtaking views and a fast-paced river. More important, it has terraced paddy fields. When we asked the management about the terraced fields during a visit to Bali recently, we were told it was to afford guests a unique experience — paddy cultivation and working with their hands! Perhaps we could add: “And maybe to improve their maths too!”
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books