Question

Dear Mitch,

My husband and I just moved back to the U.S. after living in China for 21 years. We were both born and raised in America, but while we were there (and before learning that we would have to move back to the U.S.) we adopted a six-month-old girl whose biological mother was Chinese and whose biological father was Japanese. Currently, she is our only child. So, with very little experience to go on, I find myself wondering about an article I once read that showed test results from children around the world. The Chinese and Japanese children performed better than the American children on the math sections in almost every category, year after year. Would you happen to know if there's been much research on this subject, and if so, does it seem to indicate that the difference in performance is based on the more serious nature of Chinese and Japanese children regarding their education, or is it possible that there is more to it than that? (Of course as a new mom, I can't help wonder if our little girl is likely to grow up to become one of the math superstars in her American classes?!)

Sincerely,

New Mom With Lots of Questions

Answer

Well, congratulations! So far, basing our response on the number of words (or, in this case, number of VOLUMES) it would require to give you a complete answer, you hold the number one spot for sending us the BIGGEST question!!

In fact, there have been book-length works written on the subject, there have been hundreds of studies, and we can't exactly just plop them all down here!

Fortunately, I don't think that's what you wanted anyway. So, since my own curiosity has led me over the years to devote time to the study of this particular issue, I'm going to try to answer you in a way that's the opposite of the long, comprehensive (and therefore complicated) style that initially seemed warranted. However, much more information than you will find in this brief response is readily available should you still seek it.

ANSWER:

Your child was still quite young when you left Asia, so unless you or your husband worked in a school I don't imagine you observed many classes in session. So, here come some surprising answers:

1. Culturally, every nation is different in so many ways, of course, so rather than respond over-inclusively, I'll select Japan as a focus. The country of Singapore, which is in Asia, of course, is the country that in the well-known international mathematics competitions tends to have the highest average for almost all levels of students. However, Japan, which is quick to follow in the number two spot, is bigger, and for some reason is the country Americans seem to focus on when this topic comes up, so I'll refer to Japan here. (By the way, there are two meanings to the phrase "all levels" -- all age groups, and all skill-levels at each age group; I am using the phrase in both ways simultaneously).

So, as briefly as I can, here are some facts: the typical image Americans have of Japanese classrooms and the teaching style and behavior of its students is not accurate. Rather than the neat rows and columns of students paying attention and taking notes, the math classes are more "hands on" than the typical math class in the United States, and the lessons are more interactive and group-oriented than most Americans imagine, with students sitting comfortably around tables or groups of desks pushed together. There is also a heavier use of "manipulatives" than typically seen in American math classes -- especially as the students get older.

1. Schools do not do what Americans call '"ability grouping" until much older than is often seen in the U.S. ("Ability grouping" is the situation where we have classes of "gifted" math students separated from other math students, and a third group of students taken out from the regular classroom in small groups for 'additional support' because they're considered weak mathematically, etc.)

2. Typically, until 9th grade in Japan, all students learn the same lesson in the same room at the same time. And the students tend to 'get it'. The most likely reason is that they are expected to get it, just as able-bodied Americans who live in suburbs are generally expected to be able to learn how to drive a car. (Which, as many of us learn the hard way during a nighttime snowstorm, is not always such an easy task.)

3. Because the students are expected to be able to learn the material, it is not considered acceptable or 'cute' for an adult woman (or man) to openly admit -- even brag -- to be a 'non-math person' the way it seems to be in the U.S. It would like an adult standing up at a social function here and announcing gleefully that he/she cannot read. Illiteracy is not considered endearing here, the way a black hole in the math arena occasionally can be.

4. The typical Japanese child watches the same amount of television as his/her American counterpart.

5. There has never been a genetic difference found which would have any relevance at all to this issue. In fact, the OPPOSITE has been indicated: mathematical performance, or the ability to perform mathematically, crosses adoption lines. That means that if the biological parents of a child were mathematical, but the child is raised by people who are not comfortable with the subject, the child is more likely than not to follow in the footsteps of the people raising him/her. Likewise, if a child born to parents who are not mathematically inclined is raised by people who enjoy the subject and excel in it, the child is likely to follow their lead. So, it seems likely that the most important factor is the attitude toward the subject that the parents pass on as the child develops and learns, and NOT the makeup of the child's brain at the time of birth.

6. It is in the focused teaching and, in particular, the difference between the American attitude toward incorrect answers and the Asian attitude. In Japan, for example, incorrect responses are embraced and analyzed and presented as a welcome learning tool. The students, therefore, are not afraid to volunteer their responses and are considered valued contributors, regardless of the correctness of their response. This, I believe is very important in removing the anxiety that many American students have around math and math classes, where things are either "right" or "wrong".

7. Finally: In the areas of Asia in which all the magical math instruction is occurring, the textbooks are so much clearer and simpler than virtually every math book used in American schools, and therefore their books are far superior. In fact, when you open an Asian math book next to an American one and locate the same topic to see how they handle it, well... quite frankly, it makes being American almost embarrassing. Colored pictures of basketball stars slam-dunking a ball through a net, distracting sidebars with stories and pictures of french fries that do not teach much.... all combine to contribute to the overall MTV look that makes learning harder than it needs to be.

So, the bad news, I guess, if I need to come up with some, is that your child is NOT guaranteed to be a 'wizard' simply because her biological parents were Asian. The good news is that she has every bit as much of a chance of becoming a math-whiz if she is taught properly in school AND at home.

Finally, finally, I suspect that with you being this concerned already as her mom, this child will get every opportunity a child can hope for. Congrats on your new child! And Good Luck!

-- Mitch