How much does culture influence young children's math abilities?

Parents and educators know that culture affects their children’s and students’ language, food, and play but few think about its impacts on their math learning. Researchers from Japan's Hokkaido University attempting to change that.

In their study comparing young children’s ease with oral and written math problems, they tested to see if children's accuracy and comfort with math would be determined by their culture. While previous studies had focused on culture’s influence outside of school on the acquisition of math skills, no research has examined how the culturally-influenced style of math instruction in school impacts learning and performance. 

For this study, researchers focused on comparing students in Singapore and Japan because they are comparable in terms of economic development and education quality and their students are frequently at the top of math rankings in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). However they differ in one important area: instruction. Singapore’s system is more focused on written assessment and instruction while in Japan teachers find opportunities to bring math into events throughout the day. These oral tasks are embedded in daily tasks, such as counting and adding when students are lining up. 

To determine how the written and oral teaching approaches affect learning and performance, the researchers presented 6-year old students in both countries with a set of addition problems, half in a written format and the other half orally. The problems were categorized by difficulty and administered in the students’ first languages. The researchers looked at whether students answered questions correctly, how long it took them to solve the different types of problems, and which strategies they used. 

The Findings

As predicted, Singaporean students performed better on the written math problems while Japanese children performed better on the oral problems. Similarly, Singaporean children took longer to solve oral questions, while Japanese took longer on written ones. With regards to strategies, the researchers found that no significant differences except when the problems got to the more difficult level. Interestingly, all children used covert (i.e. mental math) strategies much more frequently than overt (i.e. finger counting) strategies.

The Influence of Culture

These results support the researchers hypotheses about how culturally-influenced foundational math instruction affects student math abilities. Given this effect, the authors suggest that early childhood educators around the world use these findings as an example of the effects of unbalanced math instructional approaches. They recommend that teachers should take care to integrate multiple teaching strategies, focusing on areas that need to be targeted and strengthened.  

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