No. 720


If you were to ask most any school superintendent or board member in America today, what are the two most difficult teaching positions on your staff to fill, their answer would most likely be math and science. This is because fewer students in our nation’s teaching colleges declare these majors or plan to go into teaching as a chosen career. I can certainly relate to this. Math and science were certainly not my favorite subjects in school, and when I got to college during the two years I attended, I did well in biology and zoology, but stayed away from math, chemistry and calculus. I’m told the trouble really begins in elementary school, especially the third and fourth grades, if a student does not develop a love for numbers, equations and critical thinking.
As a result of this phenomenon, we not only have a shortage of math and science teachers, but also an inadequate number of employees to fill jobs or careers that require these skills. As a result, this has left the door wide open for people from other countries to come to America and fill these needed positions. There are many nations who turn out far better students with regards to math and science skills than we do, but none more so than the Chinese. There are a couple of very important reasons why this is true and my reason for writing this column. The basis for what I want to share can be found in a fantastic book titled “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. He is also the author of two other books: “The Tipping Point” and “Blink” that you may have read or at least heard about.
There is one chapter in “Outliers” titled “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” that is worth the purchase price of the book many times over. It has given me insights that I may never have gotten anywhere else during my remaining days here on earth. The first reason Chinese students, and several other countries in the Orient, excel at math, is because of their language, especially their numbering system. Malcolm Gladwell points out that human beings store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. Chinese numbers have fewer letters and therefore can be said in a shorter period of time. We say “four” and “seven” while the Chinese say “is” and “qi’ which results in their being able to put more numbers in that two-second memory loop, thus giving them an advantage.
This difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to 40. American children at that age can count only to 15, and most don’t reach 40 until they are age 5. By the age of 5, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills. On international comparison tests, students from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan all score roughly the same in math, around the 98th percentile. The United States, France, England, Germany and the other Western industrialized nations cluster at somewhere between the 26th and 36th percentile. That’s a big difference.
The other reason has to do with their wet-rice farming culture. This Chinese Proverb says it best, “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” This work ethic gives them more staying power and the reason Oriental students are still in the library after everyone else has gone home. Again, the book is “Outliers”
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To begin a bookcase literacy project visit You won’t go wrong helping a needy child.)