Asian students' superiority at maths due to Confucian focus on hard work
Asian students are statistically superior in maths to their Western counterparts. Award-winning educator Frederick Leung tells Linda Yeung their success is mainly due to the emphasis on hard work in Confucian culture
Asian students' superior performance in maths and science has been at the core of Professor Frederick Leung Koon-shing's research for two decades. His persistent efforts and achievements have been recognised internationally, and he was awarded the 2013 Hans Freudenthal Medal by the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI), the equivalent of a Nobel prize in maths education.
Based in Rome, ICMI is a century-old international non-governmental and non-profit-making scientific organisation dedicated to promoting international co-operation in the field. Leung became the first Asian to be given the award, due to his insight into the influential role culture plays in the teaching and learning of maths.
It began with his doctoral research work in London in the early 1990s. This was a comparative study of mathematics teaching and learning in Beijing, London and Hong Kong. When he interviewed parents in London about their children's poor performance in the subject, they were accepting of it.
"Their response was their children were not good in maths, but they were good in, say, basketball. In Beijing, parents of the child not doing well in maths would say he was lazy," says Leung.
"There is the belief that in Western countries, typically in areas of maths, that it's the innate ability that is most important."
The cluster of Confucian countries in Asia, including China, Japan, Korea and Singapore, holds the additional belief that anyone who puts in the effort can do well in maths. As in Hong Kong, these countries value education and hard work.
Leung's research supports the theory that teaching and learning are not just influenced by things on the individual level, but rather take place throughout the whole social cultural context.
"That explains why in Western countries, some students are very, very poor in maths," says Leung, who has been with the University of Hong Kong's education faculty since the 1980s.
"In East Asia, even the bad students are not that bad; the range is not that wide. It's partly due to the Confucian belief in effort. If you are told early that you are no good at maths, you will continue to do poorly."
Born and raised in Hong Kong, he was motivated to excel by the cultural force of Confucianism, to which he attributes the region's superior academic performance. He made it to a top secondary school, and was among the elite few admitted to the University of Hong Kong in the 1970s.
East Asian countries led the world in mathematics achievement in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that covered fourth and eighth grade students.
In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results announced early this month, Hong Kong came third globally in maths, after Singapore and Shanghai, which topped the rankings for 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science.
"In Western culture, there is a lot of scepticism about practising. I am not saying maths is about practising, but memorisation [and] practising have a role to play in maths. Some Western professors have been extremely sceptical about memorisation and putting in effort," says Leung, a former principal investigator of TIMSS.
He concedes that Confucian culture, with its traditional deference to authority, breeds a conformity which could be detrimental to creativity. It is important to strike a balance and be aware of cultural differences.
"All over the world, countries are undergoing education reform; very often policymakers tend to learn from other countries. But if you make drastic changes without reference to the cultural differences, it's very dangerous. Some American states decided to adopt Singaporean textbooks for maths, but it did not seem to work. I told them, of course it won't work, as you can't import Singaporean culture."
He is concerned about the goal of pleasurable learning accompanying the education reform launched here in 2000. Learning can be painful, he says, citing a Confucian concept. "There is a very different kind of pleasure, a sense of achievement that can be obtained after a period of hard work."
Naturally, the modern notion of pleasure, derived from instant gratification, worries him.
"When I was in school, sometimes teachers gave us very difficult problems to work on. We worked on them for weeks, and were happy when we got the solution. We are gradually losing this culture of perseverance. It is a pity," he says. "During the process of change, we should make sure the good things in our culture are not disposed of."
Although not opposed to the senior secondary curriculum reform, he is concerned about the new maths curriculum which consists of the compulsory and the even more challenging extended parts. Most students opt only for the compulsory part today, leaving little room for grooming future mathematicians or statisticians. He suggests that the extended part be a prerequisite for the studying of maths, medicine and some other science disciplines at universities.
Leung has reason to be concerned about a possible slide in standards among top students. In the TIMSS study, Hong Kong has a lower percentage of students at the top compared to Taiwan and Singapore. "Our average is high but we are slowly losing out on the top end."
Besides personal effort, inspirational teachers are indispensable in cultivating math talents. Leung's interest in the subject grew after he won a maths contest in primary school. Later, at the elite St Paul's Co-educational College, his passion for maths was ignited by a teacher.
"She is the one I am forever grateful to for stimulating my interest in maths. I hope we will have enthusiastic teachers, and those that also treasure the Confucian culture, and do not follow blindly whatever is advocated in the West."
Hong Kong's unique social background may put it in good stead.
"We are at the confluence of Western and Confucian culture. Out of all the places in the world, we are in the best position to try to devise an education system that takes full advantage of both cultures.
"We should appreciate the good things in our culture, and learn from the Western culture," Leung says.