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Are the Chinese really better in math?

(First of three parts)

As a Chinese-Filipino, I celebrate the fact that the Chinese New Year is finally recognized as an official Philippine holiday.

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The Filipinos and the Chinese have had trade and social relations since before the time of Christ. Today, my fellow Chinoys and I are not only fully integrated into Philippine society; because practically everyone of my generation was born here, we call this home.

But racial stereotypes still exist. When I started this column in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine in 1991, with most of my articles revolving around mathematics, many readers asked, “Are you good in math because you are Chinese?”

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Indeed, many Chinoys seem to perform well in math in school and at work, and a disproportionate number tops local and international competitions, such as the Math Challenge sponsored by the Metrobank Foundation, the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Math Teachers Association of the Philippines; and the International Math Olympiad (IMO).

But my reply to the question was, “I don’t fear math because I practice constantly to master basic concepts. Unlike fair skin and chinky eyes, math ability is not genetic.”

So what makes someone excel in math? Some years back, former Ateneo de Manila University president Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., and I discussed this in an East Asian Regional Conference on Math Education in, of all places, Shanghai, where students rank among the best in math (and science) in the world.

Fr. Nebres and I identified certain factors necessary for successful problem-solving (which is at the heart of math), and we concluded that anyone, Chinese or not, could do well in math if they possessed or developed some essentials.

Country of paradox

Filipinos in general are not known for math ability. International surveys such as the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have placed the Philippines near the bottom. Local studies tend to confirm the finding.

In 2004, DepEd tried to launch a bridge program to address basic deficiencies in elementary math, since less than 10 percent of elementary graduates passed the achievement test.

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Today, despite years of tutorials on top of classroom studies, more and more college students have to take math remedial classes, even in premier universities.

The Philippines is a country of paradoxes. We are a vibrant part of Asia, yet our sensibilities have been heavily influenced by the West, especially the United States.

We pride ourselves in being the only predominantly Catholic country in the continent, and in speaking English well enough to give us an edge in overseas employment (though this edge seems to be fast disappearing). Our pro-West stance is usually thought to be due to lengthy colonization by Spain and the US, and our educational system is heavily influenced by Americans.

Ironically, when the Americans came, Filipinos seemed to be doing well in math.

At the end of the 19th century, the revolutionary Filomeno Bautista noted that Filipinos were conquered “not by American guns, but by American schools” and that “boxes of books were the real peacemakers.”

The boxes contained math primers and, in 1906, the most popular textbook writer in the US, George Wentworth, authored “A First Book in Arithmetic for the Philippine Islands.”

When Filipinos started producing their own math books in the 1920s, they were much influenced by Americans.

In 1925, a committee of educators, headed by professor Paul Monroe of Columbia University, tested 32,000 children, interviewed teachers, and observed classrooms. They reported that primary arithmetic teaching was done well, and Filipino students were at par with their US peers. Only when English became more difficult to understand in higher texts did Filipinos begin to lag behind.

Monroe later reported that, of the many countries he visited, the advances he saw in the Philippines were the most impressive.

But at the start of this millennium, Filipinos seemed to have lost their edge even though in the TIMSS, Asian countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Chinese Taipei occupy the top ranks.

So much research has been done on possible reasons behind our poor performance. Blame is put on teacher training, misguided curriculum, unmotivated students, etc.

More learning time

Many local IMO winners come from Chinese-Filipino schools and, in most universities, though I have not seen rigorous statistical studies, they seem to perform better. As early as the 1990s, several cross-cultural comparisons attested to the predominance of East Asians, as noted by educators Harold Stevenson and James Stigler in the book “The Learning Gap.”

But such exemplary performance is not so much genetic or hereditary, but may be due to certain beliefs, traditions and practices predominant in East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) culture. Singapore may be in Southeast Asia, but its culture is more East Asian.

One basic factor is simply, more learning time. Students in Chinese-Filipino schools have twice as much time to learn math as those in other institutions. In many Chinese-Filipino schools, students have two math classes per day—one in English, the other in Chinese.

Students are presented the same concepts, but taught in different ways and different languages, which can only enhance learning.

In my college classes, some Chinoy students say they tackle certain questions “using the ways taught in Chinese math class.”

In math, practice makes perfect. It does not take a math whiz to figure out the comparative advantage when the extra hours in Chinese-Filipino schools are multiplied by at least 10 years (elementary and high school combined).

In other Asian countries, such as Japan and Taiwan, the school year is longer than that of the US or the Philippines. More time is devoted to academics and, of course, math.

E-mail the author at blessbook@yahoo.com.

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