Thursday, 8 March 2012

Can The Tiger Come to Tea?

I shouldn’t think so! You see - there are no play dates for tiger cubs, the offspring of so-called Tiger Mums.
The term Tiger Mum was coined by Amy Chua in her memoir, Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, a book about Chinese parenting published a year ago. Tiger Mums believe in hard work and often rigorously schedule their children’s after school activities; four hours of extra study is not uncommon. Organisation, hard work, dedication, effort, these are their watchwords; ‘practice, practice, practice’ their mantra. All of this comes at a cost of course; play dates are simply prohibited.
England may be languishing in league tables – we are currently in 28th position worldwide for the maths performance of our fifteen year olds - but China is the rising star and number one.
Even in England, Chinese children achieve the best maths GCSE results. And maybe it is all thanks to their Tiger Mums.
But is there more to the Chinese success story than sheer hard work? Well, yes, I believe so. Something as simple as the way we say our numbers can have a massive impact on early learning.
Just think about our naming of numbers: ‘Fourteen’ for example, or ‘sixteen’. So why not ‘oneteen’ or ‘twoteen’ or ‘threeteen’’ or ‘fiveteen’? Similarly we have ‘sixty’ and ‘seventy’ but not ‘twoty’ or threety’. Even ‘forty’ isn’t ‘fourty’! It’s just a bit odd.
Even more significant for small children is that the names can also be counterintuitive.
Think about ‘fourteen’ again. We say the ‘four’ bit first BUT write the teen bit first: 14. Likewise for all the teen numbers. But then we reverse that process So for ‘twenty four’ we write the 2 first (representing two lots of 10) and then the 4. No wonder when you are aged 5, distinguishing between 21 and 12 takes some thinking about.
Compare this with the Chinese system of naming numbers. Eleven is quite simply ‘ten-one’; twelve is ‘ten-two’; thirteen is ‘ten-three’; and so on. Likewise: twenty-one is ‘two-tens-one’; twenty-two is ‘two-tens-two’; twenty-three is ‘two-tens-three’; and so forth.
The upshot of this beautifully simple system is that, on average, Chinese children can count to forty by the time they are 4. English speaking children are usually 5 before they master this skill.
So by the time English speaking kids reach school they are already a year behind their Chinese peers. And that’s not all. Because the Chinese system is so clear and so straightforward, basic number operations (such as adding and subtracting) are just that much easier.
Imagine you are six years old. Now try adding, in your head, twenty-seven and twelve.
Before you can begin you must be able to interpret the words, i.e. twelve actually means one ten and two units, likewise twenty-seven is actually two tens and seven units. Then perform the addition, adding the tens and adding the units*, and then translate back into words; 3 tens and 9 units being thirty-nine. (*Note when performing mental maths most of us do add the tens first, followed by the units.)
Now try the Chinese way: two-tens-seven and one-ten-two. The solution is literally embedded in the question. Answer: three-tens-nine. How much easier is that for a 6 year old? A similarly simple and sensible system exists for fractions. 
Does this mean Chinese children have an easier and more successful start to the subject? Could this explain why, in China, there is no culture of negativity surrounding maths? 
And of course success breeds success.  No wonder by the time English pupils sit their GCSE’s, Chinese pupils are on average two years ahead.
Hard work has its place of course; So too an aspirational desire to succeed. British children of Chinese ethnicity do after all perform best in GCSE exams even without the linguistic advantage. It seems Tiger Mums can drive their children to conquer even our opaque number system.  Amidst much media hoo-ha about Chua’s tough parenting style, she emerges as a loving and caring parent. Maybe Tiger Mums should be given some credit. Maybe, as the sun sets on the West and we contemplate the future of our economy and education, we should learn some lessons from the Eastern stars.
Naomi Sani

Move it!

Meeting my son and his best friend from school, I asked how their day had been. Expecting the usual pre-teen, 10 year old mumbles, I was taken-aback by their: “Really good,........ maths was great”. Music to my ears  - but what wonderful, inspiring, creative lesson had their teacher crafted?
Measuring! Measuring what? Anything, everything, all didn’t matter. The point was they were up, out of their seats, trying things out, experimenting, making decisions, in control.
This is not rocket science: Kids just love to move around, be hands on and try things out for themselves. This is a classic case of kinaesthetic learning.
Kinaesthetic learning sounds complicated but it simly means learning through touch and movement. Children, especially of primary age, love to move around: This will be of no surprise to anyone who has spent any amount of time with young children. But most children do also learn best when they are allowed to be active!
Talking to children at length can be so counter productive. It is however a very tempting tactic - because children are in the seats, quiet and the teacher can be comfortably in control. Allowing children to move is more unsettling, more noisy and more risky. But the rewards can be great: the learning so much richer, deeper and engaging; the pupils more curious, interested and motivated. For maths to become a more joyful experience for many, the kinaesthetic approach is a must.
Boys in particular benefit from kinaesthetic learning. Generally as children get older fewer and fewer opportunities for kinaesthetic learning are offered. This can be a problem, particularly for boys. So if you want to kickstart a group of sluggish boys, consider upping the kinaesthetic content.
Linking together mathematical concepts, joining up the dots and seeing the big picture can also be enlightening.
I was blown away by an inspirational talk by Christopher Lloyd (author of ‘The What On Earth Wallbook’). He summed up the whole history of the earth, all 13.7 billion years of it, in just under one hour. Simply amazing. I learnt (and re-learnt things that I had once known but long since forgotten) stuff which all made so much more sense when fitted together and joined up.
I used this idea - of zooming out and seeing a big picture as opposed to zooming in and focusing on one particular concept - when working with a group of forty pupils on an intensive revision maths residential. Linking together .... (big breath)...... number bonds with adding and subtracting (and sum and difference) with summing numbers to 180 with angles in a triangle with different types of triangles with different types of polygons with interior and exterior angles of a polygon with the area of a rectangle with factor pairs (making up the dimensions of rectangle) and multiples with the area of a triangle with BODMAS with square numbers and cube numbers and indices with standard form and very big numbers such as a billion, and so on,....... all in one session. Interjected with some loud music and some snappy YouTube clips - it really worked!! 
But what is a billion anyway? After all we hear a lot about the billions and billions of debt in the Euro-zone. 
A billion used to be a million lots of a million and look like this:
1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
and this is still the case in large parts of Europe.
In the United States however, a billion is a thousand lots of a million and looks like this:
1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
(and in fact the United States’ trillion is the same as a European billion!!)
So whose billion are we (and our media) using??
Perhaps we best ask the movers and shakers - the politicians. (But I have a sneaky feeling that many wouldn’t have a clue!)

Naomi Sani