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It must be the chopsticks: The Less Reported Findings of 2015 TIMSS and Explaining the East Asian Outstanding Performance

29 November 2016 4,760 8 Comments

TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) beat PISA by one week. It just released its 2015 results. Within hours of the release, Google News has already collected over 10,000 news stories reacting to the results from around the world, some sad, some happy, some envious, and some confused. The biggest news is, however, nothing new: Children in East Asian countries best at maths. They were the best 20 years ago when TIMSS was first introduced in 1995. They were the best in all subsequent cycles.

Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan are the top performers. In 4th grade, the lowest East Asian country is 23 points above the next best country, Northern Ireland for 4th grade, the same gap as was in 2011, and in 8th grade, a whopping 48 points lead ahead of the next best country, Russia, a 17 point increase from 31 in 2011. (See below).

Much of the coverage is about how well the East Asian students performed and conversation will be about what lessons we can draw from the East Asian education systems. Frankly I am not sure what, if anything, can be learned these studies but below are a few observations I have after a quick read of the 2015 math report. These findings are less likely to be covered by the media and talked much by pundits.

  1. East Asian parents are not “very satisfied” with their schools. In 4th grade, only 7% of students’ parents in Japan reported that they were “very satisfied,” the lowest of all participating countries, 17% for Korea, 47% for Chinese Taipei, 55% for Hong Kong, and 58% for Singapore, all below the international average of 59%. The US, Australia, and England did not have enough participation to be reported.
  2. East Asian schools do not necessarily put a “very high emphasis” on academic success. According to the principals reports, in 4th grade, only 3% of Japanese students’ principals put a “very high emphasis” on academic success, 7% for Hong Kong, 11% for Singapore, 12% for Chinese Taipei, and 26% for Korea, compared with 19% for Canada, 18% for New Zealand, 14% for the US and England, and 12 for Australia. In 8th grade, English schools top the world in emphasis on academic success with 26% of students’ principals reported so, while Japan had only 2%, Hong Kong 6%, Chinese Taipei 7%, Singapore 10%, and Korea 17%. The U.S. has 8% and Australia 14%, on par with Canada’s 13%. Teacher reports show a similar pattern.
  3. East Asian teachers are not “very satisfied” with their jobs. In 4th grade, Japan is at the bottom with only 23% of its students’ teachers reporting “very satisfied,” Hong Kong is third from the bottom, with 33%. Singapore has 37%, while Chinese Taipei has 46%. Korea is the exception with 55%. Countries reporting the most “very satisfied” teachers are Iran, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates. In 8th grade, the situation seems to worsen: Japan, England, Singapore, and Hong Kong are bottom four education systems with the lowest percentage of students whose teachers are “very satisfied.” Korea is better, but not by much, with 38%, compared to 44% in the US, 50% in Australia, and 57% in Canada.
  4. East Asian students do not have a “high sense of school belonging.” Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei are the bottom three with 41%, 46% and 46% of 4th grade students reporting a “high sense of school belonging.” Korea is slightly better with 52% and Singapore with 56%. The international average is 66%. The percentage for England is 77%, Canada 66%, and the U.S. 64%. Australia has 62%. The 8th graders in East Asian systems follow a similar pattern.
  5. East Asian students do not necessarily receive more classroom instruction compared to the U.S., Australia, Canada or England. In 4th grade, for example, Korea spends the least amount of time at 100 hours, Chinese Taipei spends 128 hours, Japan 151 hours, Hong Kong 159, Singapore 201. The International Average is 157 hours. In comparison, the U.S. spends 216 hours, Australia 202 hours, Canada 196, and England 189 hours.
  6. East Asian systems are not the top users of computers in math lessons. The top 5 are New Zealand, Denmark, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and Georgia in 4th grade and Sweden, Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Chile in 8th grade in terms of availability of computers for students to use in math lessons. Student use of Internet for schoolwork shows a similar pattern.
  7. East Asian students receive the least engaging math lessons in the world. In 4th grade, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Denmark, and Singapore have the lowest percentages of students reporting that they experience “Very Engaging Teaching.” The same pattern is found in 8th grade. Only 8% of Korean students reported having “Very Engaging Teaching.” Japan has 10%, Chinese Taipei 23%, Hong Kong 26%, and Singapore 33%. The International Average is 43%. Canada, the US, England, and Australia all have more engaging lessons.
  8. East Asian students DO NOT “very much like learning mathematics”. In 4th grade, the bottom 5 countries (in reverse order) are Korea (19%), Chinese Taipei (23%), Japan (26%), Finland (28%), and Croatia (29%). Hong Kong and Singapore are slightly better with 35% and 39% respectively, below the international average of 46%. U.S. students seem to like learning math more with 42% and England has 50% of its 4th graders like learning math. In 8th grade, the similar pattern holds, with Slovenia, Korea, Japan, Hungary, and Chinese Taipei having the least proportion of students reporting “very much like learning mathematics.”
  9. East Asian students have very little confidence in mathematics. Korea, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong have the lowest percentage of 4th graders reporting “very confident in math, all below 20%, while the International Average is 32%. The situation is about the same for 8th graders: Japan has 5% saying “very confident,” Korea 8%, Chinese Taipei 9%, Hong Kong 10%, and Singapore 13%. The international average is 14%. Canada, Israel, Norway and the US have the most confident 8th graders.

10.  East Asian students don’t value math much. Again, four out of the five East Asian education systems are at the absolute bottom of the ranking in terms valuing math. Only 10% of 8th graders in Chinese Taipei, 11% in Japan, 13% in Korea, and 19% in Hong Kong “strongly value mathematics.” The percentage for Singapore is 34%, way below the international average of 42%. The U.S. is above the international average with 44%.

The bottom line and the big question:

So compared with most of the students participated in the TIMMS 2015 study, they have less engaging math lessons, they spend less time studying math in schools, they like math or value math less, and they are less confident in math, how did the East Asian students achieve the best scores?

The answer may lie outside schools. To me, the answer has to be the chopsticks, something common to all these East Asian students interact with on a daily basis. To improve math scores, we should all begin using chopsticks.

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8 Comments »

  • Yong Zhao: “It Must Be the Chopsticks”! East Asian Nations Top TIMSS Scores Again | Diane Ravitch's blog said:

    [...] In this article, he reports the results of the latest international test, TIMSS. Once again, the East Asian nations topped the charts. Aside from 8th grade math, which are up, U.S. scores are unchanged. [...]

  • Steve Ruis said:

    A study of US Asian students v. White and Black students showed two things: Asian students were taught that learning mathematics was a matter of effort, not talent while white and black students were taught that it was a matter of talent (and hence out of the students control), and that the score and grade differences could be accounted for by “time on task,” that is Asian students did better because they spent more time studying. US White and Black students spend more time socializing and working.

    I suspect the quality of the performances on these test has to to with effort and little else, Asian students don’t expect school to be entertaining and don’t expect to achieve without effort. Why on Earth we decided that convincing parents that kids should be entertained by school was a good thing is beyond me. (I guess there was money to be made.) In college do we teach youths that work should be entertaining?

    Why is it that kids on sports teams expect to have to work hard (I remember bleeding and throwing up being involved.) but school, eh, not so much.

  • Marcia Weinhold said:

    I once read an article speculating that Asian children have less trouble with place value because of the way their languages “name” the numbers. Has anyone studied other interactions of language and mathematics?

  • Laura H. Chapman said:

    Thank you for the wonderful selection of points to highlight. It is an important exercise. It look beyond the scores for reasons. Needless to say, your conclusion is perfect. I hope you are invited to offer your explanation to the philanthropic and tech communities.

  • leonie haimson said:

    Question: In how many of these countries do large percentages of students attend private or “cram” classes or tutoring, to make up for the deficiencies of their schools?

  • Adam Jang-Jones said:

    One small correction: Timss beat Pisa by 1 week. Pisa is due out on 6 Dec. :-)

  • Jim said:

    Regarding the comment of Marcia Weinheld concerning the Chinese language note that the Korean and Japanese spoken languages have nothing in common with Chinese. Korean and Japanese may possibly be remotely related but neither is a Sino-Tibetan language or at all similar to any Sino-Tibetan language.

    Greenberg classified Korean, Japanese and Ainu as part of his large Euro-Asiatic super family which also includes Indo-European, Uralic-Yukagir, Altaic, etc. Greenberg’s classification remains controversial but the resemblances between these linguistic groups is striking. Japanese has much more resemblance to a Uralic-Yukagir language like Finnish than to any Sino-Tibetan languages.

    So it is doubtful that linguistic type has much to do with East Asian success in mathematics.

    There is extensive psychometric data on the Japanese population indicating an average IQ of 107. The average of various studies of brain size among Northeast Asians shows their brain size to average about 2% above the average brain size of Europeans.

    Biology is the most likely source of intellectual and behavioral differences between Northeast Asians and other populations.

  • Articles of Interest December 2nd, 2016 « National Creativity Network said:

    [...] It must be the chopsticks: The Less Reported Findings of 2015 TIMSS and Explaining the East Asian Ou… Yong Zhao | Education in the Age of Globalization [...]

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