## Sunday, March 13, 2016

### Beyond the Tiger Mom

I've been meaning to write a post about very interesting and engaging book by Maya Thiagarajan that came out last month and that I had the pleasure of blurbing:

The daughter of a South Indian father and an American mother, and a resident, for different phases of her life, of the U.S., India, and Singapore, Ms. Thiagarajan is in a unique position to contrast Asian and American parenting styles. Readers of this blog might find particularly interesting what she has to say about why Asian kids are so good at math. Here is an excerpt:
Now, in the US, I had read over and over again about the importance of creating a print-and language-rich home for children, but here in Asia, I began to see but here in Asia, I began to see many mothers working hard to create a mathematically rich home for their children. Mothers like Priya talked to their kids about numbers, shapes, and patterns from the get-go. They played maths games when they were in the car or at the dinner table (guess the number, solve the mathematical riddle, add up the numbers on licence plates as quickly as possible, calculate distance travelled, etc.). They taught their kids chess. They spent money and time on Lego sets, building blocks, tangrams, jigsaw puzzles, and board games. When they took the kids to the grocery store, they talked maths: "If one apple costs 80¢, how much will six apples cost?" When they rode the elevator, they talked maths: "Look, we're riding up and down a number line. If we're on the fifth floor now, how many more floors till we get to the 11th floor?"
I asked Lara, a Singaporean chartered accountant with a maths-inclined son, how she had managed to raise a child who so clearly loved maths. "What really matters is that I get him to notice the maths that exists all around us," she replied. "When we go to the playground, for example, I ask him what he sees, and we talk about shapes and patterns. I'll point out an isosceles triangle to him, or we'll look at the shapes and patterns on the jungle gym..."
Besides deliberately building a math-rich home, most of the Asian mothers I know also set to work making sure that their kids learned maths early. Asian mothers – both south Asian and east Asian – love maths workbooks. Unlike many Westerners who shun workbooks, claiming that too many drills will kill a child's love of learning, Asian mothers, in my experience, adore them. They gain great satisfaction from watching their young children complete good old-fashioned drills. Looking at a sheet full of correctly solved math problems is tangible proof of learning that makes mothers feel reassured and happy. In addition to workbooks, many Asian mothers encourage their kids to do online math games and math drills.
There's a lot more. For anyone interested in a bigger picture of what goes into academic success, and what often goes against the grain of American edu-parenting trends, I highly recommend Thiagarajan's book.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Asian countries are excellent at producing students who can solve, shall we say, practical problems; however, they are far behind Anglo/European countries at the highest levels of maths: the Fields medal. Only one Asian country has won (Japan) and if we have to give credit to any one country it would have to be France. The US institutions definitely produce the most winners, even though most are not native born (US has not won since 1998)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fields_Medal

Maya Thiagarajan said...

Katharine: Thanks so much for recommending the book! I really appreciate it.
@ Anonymous: Yes, you're right about Field medals, and that's definitely a topic of conversation in Singapore. I think that when it comes to university education, America still has an advantage over other nations, especially at top universities that attract excellent students from around the world.
However, what I write about in 'Beyond the Tiger Mom' is how well East Asian nations have done at ensuring that the majority of their populations are numerate to a very competent degree. The systematic and rigorous K-6 Math curricula in these countries, along with the deep reverence for Math education in homes, ensures that almost all kids have excellent math foundations in a way that doesn't happen in the US.
The PISA score breakdowns are telling: In the 2012 PISA, 40% of Singaporean 15 year olds scored in the top bands for Math proficiency, while only 9% of Americans scored in this band. In contrast, only 8.3% of Singaporeans were in the bottom bands (which means they're barely numerate) in comparison to 26% of Americans. Similar breakdowns exist in other East-Asian nations as well.
So while the US does well at nurturing talent at the very rarefied top levels in their university system, East-Asian nations are doing a fantastic job of ensuring that the vast majority of their populations -- including low income kids who attend regular public schools in poorer neighborhoods -- are getting a strong foundation in Math in elementary school.

Maya Thiagarajan said...

Btw, my book, 'Beyond the Tiger Mom,' is not a defense of Singaporean/Asian education. In the book, I critique Singapore as much as I celebrate it. The thesis of my book is that when it comes to education/parenting, both East and West (Singapore and America are the countries I focus on) have significant strengths and a lot to learn from each other. And certainly, the Singaporeans I encounter are influenced by Western ideas, and they admire America's ability to nurture creativity.
While Singapore is far from perfect, I think that I can very confidently say that when it comes to Math education at school and at home, particularly math foundations in the early years, Singaporeans are doing some really fantastic stuff, though they don't document and publicize it as much as they should.