The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provides data on student performance in math and science from over 60 countries. In the most recent (2019) TIMSS assessment in math, the US came in 15th out of 64, with Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan ranking in the top five. With all the technological advancements and emphasis on quality education, the US should easily rank in the top ten. In reality, the US has consistently ranked below 10th place in math and science performance. Part of our lackluster performance is due to many American students facing math-related anxiety. How many times have you heard someone say they are “just not a math person”? Underlying such a statement is the belief that math aptitude is innate. In the US, when a student struggles to read, the student gets plenty of help to improve their reading skills. Why is this not the case for math? Research about Singaporeans and other Asian students shows that success in math is not due to genetics. Instead, using a growth mindset and old-fashioned hard work, American students can become just as math savvy as any Singaporean student.
In Singapore, all students are considered to be capable of learning the material at a deep level, not just sufficiently enough to perform well on tests. Using the concept of a growth mindset, which was first termed by psychologist Carol Dweck, students in Singapore are taught that they can succeed in math if they keep working hard at problem-solving. This mental approach builds their confidence; so, when faced with difficult problems as they advance to higher-level courses, they persevere in finding a solution. In contrast, many US students get frustrated with challenging problems and since they already believe it is a subject they are not good at, they give up relatively quickly due to their fixed mindset.
Unfortunately, the fixed mindset is imparted to American children at a young age. Research suggests that many American mothers believe that children’s math performance depends on intelligence and innate ability. On the other hand, Asian mothers believe that effort is more of a factor in academic success. This translates to the common practice in Asia of sending kids to tutoring or afterschool programs to improve their math (and other academic) skills. In Taiwan, over 20% of kindergarteners attend after-school programs to enhance concepts learned in the classroom, which is unheard of in the US. As students get older, the percentage of attending after-school instruction increases. American students can feel more confident in math by doing the same; research in the US indicates that after-school tutoring provides a significant improvement in math achievement for struggling students.
American students are also at a disadvantage in the school system. Many US elementary school teachers have reported disliking math, and this is translated to how they teach the subject to their students, generally in non-engaging ways. In Singapore, teachers use the CPA (concrete/ pictorial/ abstract) approach that first links math problems to real-life situations and objects, before moving on to visual/pictorial representations of objects and then finally to abstract thinking and calculations. This method is not only engaging but also effective in getting students to truly comprehend the topic. Helping teachers become more comfortable with math will have long-term positive effects on students. One study conducted by Dr. Jo Boaler (a mathematics professor at Stanford University) found that when fifth-grade teachers improved their attitude towards math, it led to higher test scores for their students. Some US teachers are also changing up their curriculum in order to make math more fun; at a school in CA, one teacher has a 12th-grade Discrete Math course that revolves around playing games such as capture the flag, similar to the game featured on the reality show “Survivor”.
RHS Math teacher Mr. Sean Turkington (affectionately known as Turk) has been teaching advanced courses such as Math Analysis, AP Calculus AB, and AP Calculus CD for many years. He acknowledges that at Ridgewood, there is “pressure to get a certain grade so students sacrifice their future ability to understand. But, the more you understand, the less you have to memorize. Why memorize the process when you can just look at it and understand why it happens?” Turk expresses.
Turk provided some insights into the psychology-math dynamic. He believes that one way to help students become better at the subject is to “work as hard as possible and view math as something you can get better at. It is generally accepted with sports. You see it all the time: people walk onto college teams or an unheralded person will become an all-star. I think people need to view math that way. Practice really helps.” Nowhere is more evident than when looking at girls in the math field. Traditionally, girls shy away from STEM fields such as math. Turk notes that it is “very difficult for girls to excel in math since society stereotypes math as a male pursuit, which works against them.” The good news is that this seems to be changing. RHS Senior Arosh de Silva believes that “girls work harder than boys and are now often successful in balancing out the gender gap in typically masculine predominated fields,” and RHS Junior Julia Synn concurs with this statement. This statement lends further evidence that hard work and a growth mindset are extremely effective.
The US is behind in math when compared to Asian countries, but this is not an irreparable problem. As mentioned, anyone can become an excellent math student with lots of effective practice. Even though constant practice sounds tedious, it is nice to know that your mastery of math (and any subject) is within your control, rather than dependent on your genetic makeup. Kevin Park, a current student in AP Calc AB, shares his strategy for success: “I try to put more effort into doing small things with quality (like homework) because it helps save time later studying and lets me get a better grasp of the material.”
Sports and Wellness Editor
Graphic: Sunny Rhew