Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Immersion in 'Superior' Chinese Education?

Congratulating a Student
Photo by Jane Peterson
New York Times

In "An American School Immerses Itself in All Things Chinese" (NYT, October 26, 2014), Jane A. Peterson publishes an informative article - though also something of a 'puff' piece - about a school in Minneapolis, Yinghua Academy, that immerses American students in Mandarin Chinese to teach all of its classes from from kindergarten to eighth grade, which is fine and dandy by my reckoning, but I have a few reservations about some of the praise:
Math results, which are particularly strong, are partly attributed to the Singapore Math curriculum and its eight-step approach to word problems, as well as the Chinese-educated teachers who move through material more quickly than their American peers.
Ms. Peterson is a journalist stationed in Singapore, so she should know something about its approach to math education, but she might also be wont to consider it more positively than if otherwise stationed. I note this only as a possibility - and one should always practice some skepticism about what one reads. Consider, for instance, these words of praise for Mandarin:
Mathematical terms in Mandarin are also clearer. The word for "triangle," for instance, "sanjiaoxing," means three-sided. And when counting to 100, the Chinese use only 10 numbers to build all others; 71, for instance, is written 7-10-1. "The number system is easier to work with," said Mary McDonald, a seventh-grader who takes an extra university math class once a week. "It's faster and more organized."
Hmmm . . . Let me just point out that "triangle" means "three-angled," which is no more difficult than "three-sided." Moreover, I can't see the Chinese number system as easier since the Western number system also uses only ten numbers - 0 through 9 - to compose all others. But who am I to argue with a seventh-grader?

And perhaps I've simply missed the point about how math is "clearer" and "easier" in Mandarin. Might somebody explain to me how?

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At 6:38 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I think you're generally correct about math being no clearer or easier in English than it is in Mandarin. I suspect, though, that the specific point being made about the need to know fewer words in order to form numbers in Mandarin is technically correct. It's true for Sino-Korean numbers as well.

In English, once you get beyond the number ten, you have to memorize new vocabulary to get you through the teens and up to twenty. For "eleven," for example, you can't just recycle "ten" and "one" to say "ten-one" as is done in Chinese and in Sino-Korean numbers.

That said, the idea that fewer number-related vocabulary words can lead to better math skills is a bit of a stretch.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I see. That is somewhat simpler. Thanks, Kevin.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a side note that has nothing directly to do with this post, an article in today's, 10/28, Arkansas Democrat Gazette purports to trace the US decline in math skills back to when "new math" was introduced into school curriculum back in the late 60's and through the 70's. Fortunately "new math" did not make it to the more rural areas until later sparing us a similar fate.


At 7:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But I remember the attempt at new math back in the fourth or fifth grade . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Minnesota--with its crowds of up-tight, over-bearing, anal, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, "progressive", dull, humorless, lock-step, unimaginative, bullying, dysfunctional, thick-tongued, Frankenstein-ish, awkward and busy-body Scandihoovians--is a fit place for a ludicrous project like this to emerge.

At 3:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We may well have had a dose of "new math" back then. It must have been short lived as I just do not remember it.

Does someone have an issue with the land of 10,000 lakes?


At 4:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous (not you, Jay), you sound like one of my brothers after a teaching spell in one of those northern Midwestern states.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jay, I recall something about set theory . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Triangle" does mean "three angles," but the prefix "tri" is less familiar to young learners than its Chinese equivalent. As a learner of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, I observed that academic language was more accessible for three reasons. First, the syllable components were used to form everyday words. Second, Sino-derived academic vocabulary tends to have fewer syllables than English academic words with Greek and Latin roots. Third, the lack of strong stressed and unstressed syllable changes means that the syllables generally sound the same in every word. The examples given in the story are weak. I'll share a few better ones that I picked up while teaching Korean students:

분자 / 분모 (part-offspring / part-mother) numerator/denominator

교환 (exchange-exchange) commutative (as in commutative property of addition or multiplication)

반구 (half-sphere) The two syllables in this word are incorporated into many everyday words, and young Korean children probably arrive in kinder having already heard this word. Its English equivalent, "hemisphere," does not roll off the tongue and is difficult to remember.

가수 / 감수 (add-number / subtract-number) addend / subtrahend

I spend more time than I care to skill-drill-killing vocabulary as many questions on the federal and state-mandated annual standardized achievement tests require recall of vocabulary.

Singapore Math is making the rounds in US education. I was trained in it last summer and have been using bar models as graphic organizers for word problems. Another component of Singapore Math is mental math, or rounding to landmark numbers and then adding or subtracting. For example, 39 + 44 = 39->40 + 44 = 84 - 1 = 83. I don't think we were explicitly taught this in school. Those of us with strong number sense did it naturally just as those of us with good phonemic awareness picked up sound-spelling patterns while reading without explicit teaching. Common Core incorporates a lot of Singapore Math and gets a bad rap because of the way it's presented and practiced in commercially produced textbooks. I've seen some horrible examples of convoluted mental math circulating in online rants against Common Core. The blame lies not with the standards but with the textbook publishers.

Hope your beautiful family is doing well. Your eldest must be close to graduating.


At 2:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi - and you always surprise me with how much you know!

I should 'learn' not to be so surprised.

Jeffery Hodges

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