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Yong Zhao: It Must Be Chopsticks: The Less Reported Findings of 2015 TIMSS and Explaining the East Asian Outstanding Performance

TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) beat PISA by two weeks. 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 Jan 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 8thgrade, 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 8thgraders 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 8thgraders.

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 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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Yong Zhao

Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He curre...