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Ho Math Chess Research and Articles > Why some Chinese students are better at math?

23 Jun 2010


Why some Chinese students are better at math?
Frank Ho
Canada certified math teacher
Ho Math and Chess Learning Centre
June, 2010
There are lots of myths around the issue of “Chinese are good at math” and it somewhat implies that the statement is genetic based. I decide to share my observations and experiences in tutoring math for over 15 years at Ho Math and Chess Learning Centre, Vancouver, Canada on why some (Canadian) Chinese students are good at math.
In this article, when I say some Chinese students are better at math, I mean to say that some Chinese students’ math marks are better than their peers while going to the same schools.
Some Chinese students (or some Asians with Chinese origin background students from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, or Taiwan) seem to score better in their math tests than their peers (whether they are Asian or non-Asian students) when going to the same class, why?
The real issue is not really Chinese students are better at math, it is really the issue of finding out what factors have contributed to the difference between math A and non-A students regardless if they are Chinese or not.
It is not Chinese are good at math, it is some Chinese student are better at getting higher math marks than other Chinese or non-Chinese students. For this reason, “Chinese” mentioned in this article implies “Elementary and secondary Chinese background students in Vancouver, Canada”. The underlined reason is not Chinese language is inherently helpful to Chinese to learn math, although it may help a bit but not significantly that is because some Chinese students are also very bad at math. Some Chinese students are clearly doing better than other Chinese students. Would it be possible that this group of math A Chinese students’ descents continues the similar trend then it might have some genetic influence down the road? This hypothesis is beyond the scope of this article. So my observations are more to do with to find out why some Chinese origin students in Vancouver, Canada could get A and some could not? I also compared Chinese math A students to other Chinese non-A students to attempt to find out why?
My observations are as follows:
There are 3 major contributing factors which contribute the result of (Chinese) students getting an A in math. The first is to have a good school. I had a girl who transferred from a private school to another private school and then she felt that the new school math standard is higher than previous private school simply because the students in the new private school have higher ability, as a result, she got more stimulus from that environment and has to work lot of harder because they are more smarter kids in the new class. Chinese families move just because their children want to enroll in a so called high ranking school is very common. Many Chinese parents want to send their kids to private schools if they were told or they perceive the private schools seem to have higher standard academically. They encourage their kids to go to enriched math classes, send their kids to after-school learning centre to get better. Parents who are doing something extra for their kids on education tend to send a strong message to their kids that education is very important for them, so important that they will move to the location of a good school.
The second important contributing factor, I feel, is Chinese parents’ attitude toward education. 
1.   Chinese parents’ expectations on their children’s academic performance is high, often they told me that what their kids are learning in North American schools is lower than or not as hard as what they learned when they were kids in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. They are not happy with day’s school math curriculum standard and think it is low when compared to China or Taiwan or Hon Kong etc.
2.   They have no objection on kids been given homework even at lower grades such as kindergarten or grade 1 and they think it is good for kids and this was how they were brought up and they are used to it.
3.   They want their kids to be more educated than they were and go to Ivy League universities. They tell their kids to try harder and study harder so their kids can go to US Ivy League universities.
4.   They do not just send kids to academic after-school learning centres only, their kids are being sent to piano lessons, speech lessons, ballet lessons, and all kinds of sports lessons and they also encourage their kids to do volunteer work when they are older. Some Chinese parents send their kids to 2 after-school math learning centresin addition to having a private math tutor at home.
5.   Chinese parents have the idea that if their kids are getting A's, then the next step is they want their kids to be top in class. If they are top in the class, they want their kids to be 2 or 3 grades ahead of their current math curriculum.     
6.   Chinese parents agree that summer time is a relax time but they have no objection that their kids also do some math in the summer and then get ahead.
7.   They send kids to after-school learning centres is not only for the reason that their kids are not doing well, they want them to be even better and build solid foundation. They do not just send their children for a few months and then quit, they send kids to learning centres year after year until grade 12.
8.   I saw many cases where Chinese married non-Chinese and it was always the Chinese spouse who came to the learning centre and the non-Chinese spouse hardly showed up and never really asked any questions or took interest in how their kid was doing. Some Chinese spouses told me that their non-Chinese spouses feel “strange’ why a child still have to go to a math learning centre when there is already a math class at day school. Why they agree to send child to soccer camp then? There is already a PE class at school.
9.   Chinese parents are willing to help their children at home when their children do not understand.
10.   Chinese parents sit in my classes and help kids when they know their kids are behind. In some cases, they sit beside their children to get ahead.
11.   Some Chinese students complained that their parents are pushing them to study more than their peers and I remind them that their parents’ actions could be reversed if they simply study harder and more diligently, but they disagree.
12.   Some parents train their children in more strict disciplinarian and regimental and will have their children come to my learning centre even after the math exam is over while others do not come as soon as the exam is over.
The third important factor contributing to the success of getting higher math marks is the ability of self-learning of children themselves.
1.   The A students can concentrate and understand 100% of what I taught them in class. Some non-A Chinese students chit-chat in my classes and would stop only when I repeatedly told them not to talk, they seem to need baby-sitters to sit beside them. In fact, some of parents were asked to sit beside their kids and the situation improved but what happens when parents could not sit beside them? We are talking about kids who are already 10 – 12 years old Chinese students.
2.   Not willing to do homework and have no feeling if they made too many mistakes, they do not care about their quality of products.
3.   Do not care if they get A or B, no pride. They told me that they are at learning centre is because their parents wanted them to.
4.   No interest in doing any challenging work. They said something like: “My school is not doing this”, “It is too hard for me”, “I am tired, I need candy”, “Can I do something else?”
5.   Leave loose homework sheets on the table when leaving because they are not interested in doing them or leave notes I wrote on the table since they have no interest to review them later, their backpacks have many loose sheets and they have no interest in organizing them in an orderly fashion.
So from my comparison and observations based on my own teaching experience, the causers of some Chinese students are doing better in math is not really the matter of Chinese or not Chinese students. It is also a widely believed Chinese culture effect. The real cause is that some Chinese parents have made sacrifices by paying more to educate their children and by putting in more of their own time and more energy in caring their children to attempt to raise the bar themselves. It is the continued attention from parents and much more efforts and care of some Chinese’s parents and students’ own relentless hard work have contributed to the success of some Chinese who are doing better than their peers. Perhaps the percentage of Chinese (Asian) families who are putting more efforts (as described above) in learning math is higher than some non-Chinese (non-Asian) families which have contributed to the feeling that Chinese are better at math.
The more interesting question is then to attempt to find out why this group of Chinese parents is so willing to sacrifice themselves to educate their children? Many have attributed the reason to Chinese culture, but what kind of Chinese culture made this group of parents act so differently? This begs for more answers. Is this group of Chinese immigrants in North America so special that they are very different from other Chinese people in China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong? Is it related to Confucius? Is it related to the national government officials’ rigorous exam system which has been in existing in China for over thousands of years? Is it related to that Chinese people always paying more respect to intellectuals?  If the trend continues then how it will possibly become a “genetic” factor in the future is beyond the scope of this article.
At my learning centre, Ho Math and Chess, the amount of work children will do, in some cases, is several times of the amount their day school will give to them, so with average intelligence why they will not improve math? Besides, children at Ho Math and Chess do not just work on math, they also study chess and solve puzzles, and they get the chance to enhancing their math IQ while improving their school math marks.
Getting high math marks and preparing for tests or exams are not the essence for learning math. I do not advocate that parents shall educate their children on math like those Chinese parents do, nor do I necessarily agree with Chinese parents’ views and opinions on how to train children on math. I do feel parents shall provide guidance to children and direct them to learn not just computations but also learn some puzzles and chess to exercise children’s brains and develop critical thinking skills at the earliest possible age.

Frank Ho


Ho Math Chess at Home = Math + Chess + Puzzles = A fun place to learn math at home.

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