Principal's assembly 2 December 2019

At some point in History or RS lessons, you will have learnt about the dangers of stereotyping groups of people. This attitude over-generalises about different sectors of society, making the lazy assumption that “they are all the same”. The danger is that this then prejudices our approach to individuals within those groups.

Whilst it is possible to have positive stereotypes – for example, that all people with a Yorkshire accent are honest and trustworthy – it often leads to negative racial stereotypes. Historians will know that the stereotyping of Jews, allied to their scapegoating – being blamed for Germany’s ills in the 1930s – led to the Holocaust. Consequently, it’s vital that we guard against such prejudicial views as we battle today against all forms of extremism.

Whilst stereotyping is always lazy, it is not always as malign as the anti-Semitism that led to genocide. Sometimes it may even seem fairly harmless: “British people are always very polite”; “all Welsh people can sing”; “all South Africans love rugby”; “politicians are all liars”; “all Brazilians are brilliant at football”; or, commonly heard due to their success in international school league tables, that “all Chinese people are good at maths”.

The latter generalisation is something that interests me and I’ve been talking to many members of our community about it. I promised them that I would explore this in an assembly.

It’s something that has also interested decision-makers in government and led to high profile exchanges with teachers from Shanghai. One test showed that 15 year old Chinese pupils are three years ahead of their British equivalents in Maths.

What follows is, of course, hugely generalised and largely speculation. There is some statistical basis, however. Earlier today, the annual international rankings of schools were released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The top six countries for Maths were, in this order, China, Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. The UK finished 17th.

Why is it that one region dominates so comprehensively?

One theory relates to teaching methods. Maths is taught differently in Chinese primary schools; early days, but when those methods have been used over here, very little difference has been made to scores.
It could be that language differences mean that Chinese children learn to count much faster than English-speakers. Take this list of numbers (4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6). Read them out loud. Now spend 20 seconds memorising the list. Can you repeat the sequence now? Tests show that Chinese speakers are far more likely to get it right.

The theory is that we have both the number figure and the letter word to remember, and that some of those words get very long. Chinese number words, on the other hand, are much shorter.

Additionally, we have both a number symbol and a word to remember; Chinese people learn only the symbol to begin with. These differences might mean that Chinese children learn to count much faster.

Another test has shown that four year olds in China can count to forty whereas in America that doesn’t happen, on average, until a child is five. By five, then, the American child is already a year behind! It could be, then, that there is an in-built linguistic advantage.

Another theory is that the success relates to attitude.

Every four years, 10 year olds from across the world take a maths and science test along with a very detailed questionnaire about their backgrounds. It’s long and dull. The point is actually to see whether the pupil can be bothered to answer the 120 questions – and most don’t.

In the end, we can rank countries by how many questions on average their children attempted. I’m sure you’ve guessed what happens: the countries that do best on the questionnaire that requires such dedication to answer also do best on the Maths tests.

In other tests, academics have given children maths puzzles that are just too hard for their age. The real test is how long it is before the pupil gives up. Again, there is significant variation between American, British and Chinese pupils.

So perhaps the real question should be why Chinese children are generally more persistent.

American author, Malcolm Gladwell, puts it down to national culture – a way of life that has always valued dogged determination. He has even suggested that it may come down to the agricultural history of China which has relied on rice production, a much more labour-intensive and precision-requiring pursuit than arable and animal farming in the West. I’m not so sure about that – large swathes of China don’t have a history of rice production and yet the Maths results are still high.

Perhaps more significant to us all, if the success does relate to attitude and motivation, isn’t this something that we can all improve? In other words, if we are willing to dedicate the time to our work, we can all get better.

Today’s thought for the day is taken from two well-known Chinese proverbs:

“If a man works hard, the land will not be lazy.”

“No-one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.”

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