Why Asians are Better at Math

Dave Chen wrote a thought-provoking post entitled “Why Asians are Better at Math.

He cites a BBC article which compares questions from British and Chinese math tests. Says the article:

A glance at the two questions reveals how much more advanced is the maths teaching in China, where children learn the subject up to the age of 18.

Dave uses his own experiences as an Asian American to speculate upon the reasons he believes Asians are better at math:

1) Their parents
2) Their curricula are the hardest in the world
3) Their schools are oppressive, draconian environments from which there is no escape

While I do agree with Dave’s assessment overall, I wonder if there is more to it? One article suggests that Chinese language and English language speakers calculate problems differently; that language seems to have a role in this. We could probably make this list miles long, but I think a key factor missing from the list is effort. I think Asians just try harder and put in more effort (than say Americans). Yes, that may because their parents expect them to, because the of the level of the curriculum, as well as the oppressive school systems… the end result is more effort put into math, in my opinion.

Heck, remove something as subjective as effort, what about time? I’m sure we could pull up studies about how many more hours Asians spend in school, doing homework, or even practice calculations. (Did you ever have to do practice calculations? My Mom used to buy math workbooks and made us do tons of problems on top of our regular homework.)

(On a sidenote, Dave’s post has 732 diggs as of right now and a ton of comments there… first comment: “Too bad math doesn’t help when you’re behind the wheel.” An Asian driver joke. Nice.)

I’m sure there’s more I’m not even thinking of right now. What other reasons contribute to Asian excellence in math?

As an Asian American, I grew up with parental expectations to excel in school. I did well in math, compared to my cohorts, but I always knew in the back of my mind that I wasn’t a math genius. It didn’t come easy and I definitely had to study for my grades. I knew that if I had been going to school in Taiwan; my “stellar” math performance in the US would land me at the back of the remedial class there.

I’m not sure it’s worth arguing whether or not Asians are good at math; I think there is enough evidence that shows that students from Asian countries regularly outperform Americans, including Asian Americans. That said, how does this supposed “Asian Mathematical Superiority” (my words not Dave’s) affect Asian Americans who were educated in the United States? There is evidence that Asian Americans outperform students of other races in the U.S. I believe this goes back to parental expectations; I spent my after school time studying, not watching TV. I imagine many second generation Asian Americans probably had immigrant parents who enforced rigorous studying more akin to what they had experienced in Asia. I wonder how third and fourth generation Asian Americans will fare, especially if second generation Asian Americans are more lax with their expectations?

I, for one, sometimes feel like a mathematical idiot, never having taken a class beyond calculus, especially since my major in college was based in the humanities. When I started business school, I struggled with basic calculations because I hadn’t used any math since high school (and any math I needed at work or otherwise was done by Excel or a calculator). It upsets me when people say “Oh you’re Asian, you’re good at math,” because it frankly makes me feel like some sort of fraud or maybe some sub-par Asian. I know I shouldn’t feel this way because I’m basically acknowledging some sort of Model Minority complex, but then I wonder, shouldn’t I expect more of myself? Clearly, I think to myself, if I had just put some more time and effort into math, I wouldn’t be such an math dummy.

I don’t think Asians are “inherently good at math.” I think most Asians work their asses off and develop their skills through good study habits and time and effort spent on math. Yeah, there’s that annoying math savant who can recite pi out to the ten-thousandth digit and tell you the square root of any number you name, but if you want to talk “ASIAN MATH SKILLS: NATURE VS NURTURE?” I would put a big ol’ “X” on the nurture column.

What do you think?

Related links:
::An Analysis of the Factors That Impact Academic Achievement Among Asian American, African-American, and Hispanic Students:: ::Motivation and Mathematics Achievement: A Comparative Study of Asian-American, Caucasian-American, and East Asian High School Students:: ::Confucian Work Ethic (1983 Time Article):: ::The New Whiz Kids (1987 Time Article):: ::Behind the High Achievement of East Asian Students::

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6 Responses to “Why Asians are Better at Math”

  • Hey Joz,

    Just letting you know I left a comment at your posting at 8asians. Thanks again! :)


  • this is so funny, because I’m writing a paper for class on model minorities.

  • I remember when I was teaching Asian Am courses and doing research on this was that the reasoning behind this was actually fairly straightforward–since Asian immigrant parents are not as proficient in English, they felt that the only way for their kids to do better in school and not be teased for supposed accents was to achieve in areas where language wasn’t (apparently) high on their priority list, so Asian Am kids apparently were encouraged to do better in math and science since (apparently) English wasn’t as required.

    I think this was written up by Takaki and some other Asian Am studies folk as well.

  • I’m as Asian as they get and I SUCK at math. I’ve always been more linguistically inclined (not to be confused with linguinely inclined).

  • yeah i agree that it primarily has to do with external factors. if i had grown up in korea, i would probably excel in math. But since i was born in the US and went to a school here that gave a broad education, I was given much more freedom in choice as to what subjects interested me.

    As to whether Asians are inherently good at math (or academics in general), I agree that it’s basically the work ethic and the precedents already set in place. Asians have developed a system to feed all of their kids into the best colleges all over the world. And they’re incredibly efficient. I guess the constant rebuilding of their societies has spurred this.

  • I would agree that these asian students generally work harder then your average americans sometimes in the math department.Not sure if that means they’re generally smarter because of that.One other thing.I remember hearing a theory that these same kind of asians blow everyone else out the water when it comes to cold hard logic.But when it comes to creativity and thinking outside the box, they’re not nearly as good.What do you think?

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