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

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