Tiger Mum Maths: How the Chinese make doing sums super easy

My pre-school son loves Judith Kerr's classic The Tiger Who Came to Tea and, as a maths teacher,
I often find myself referring back to Amy Chua's book about Chinese parenting, Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother.

The term Tiger Mum was coined by Amy Chua. Tiger Mums believe in hard work and rigorously schedule their children’s after school activities. Four hours of extra study is not uncommon. Their watchwords are organisation, hard work, dedication and effort. Practice, practice, practice is their mantra.

So Amy's offspring would most definitely not be able to invite the tiger of the children's story home for tea. Nobody comes home for tea. Not tigers; not school friends. You see tiger cubs, the offspring of so-called Tiger Mums, don't do play dates.

They do, however, do maths. They do maths very well indeed.

England may be languishing in league tables – we are currently in 28th position worldwide for the maths performance of our fifteen year olds – but China is the rising star and Number One. Even in England, Chinese children achieve the best maths GCSE results.

But there is more to the Chinese mathematical success story than sheer hard work. The way they say their numbers - the way they think about numbers - is dramatically different and much simpler than our own.

Just think about our naming of numbers: Fourteen, for example, or sixteen. Why don't we say oneteen or twoteen or threeteen or fiveteen? Similarly we have sixty and seventy but not twoty or threety. Even forty isn’t fourty. It's not straightforward.

Even more significant for small children approaching numbers for the first time is that the names can also be counterintuitive.

Think about fourteen again. We say the four bit first but write the teen bit first: 14. Likewise for all the teen numbers. But then we reverse that process. So for twenty four we write the 2 first (representing two lots of 10) and then the 4. No wonder when you are aged 5, distinguishing between 21 and 12 takes some thinking about.

Compare this with the Chinese system of naming numbers.

Eleven is quite simply ten-one; twelve is ten-two; thirteen is ten-three; and so on. Likewise: twenty-one is two-tens-one; twenty-two is two-tens-two; twenty-three is two-tens-three; and so forth.

The upshot of this beautifully simple system is that, on average, Chinese children can count to forty by the time they are 4. English speaking children are usually 5 before they master this.

So by the time English speaking kids reach school they are already a year behind their Chinese peers. And that’s not all. Because the Chinese system is so clear and so straightforward, basic number operations (such as adding and subtracting) are just that much easier.

Imagine you are six years old. Now try adding, in your head, twenty-seven and twelve.

Before you can begin you must be able to interpret the words i.e. twelve actually means one ten and two units, likewise twenty-seven is actually two tens and seven units. Then perform the addition, adding the tens and adding the units* and then translate back into words: 3 tens and 9 units being thirty-nine. (*Note when performing mental maths most of us do add the tens first, followed by the units.)

Now try the Chinese way: two-tens-seven and one-ten-two. The solution is literally embedded in the question. Answer: three-tens-nine. How much easier is that for a 6 year old? A similarly simple and sensible system exists for fractions.

Does this mean Chinese children have an easier and more successful start to the subject? Could this explain why, in China, there is no culture of negativity surrounding maths?

And of course success breeds success. No wonder by the time English pupils sit their GCSEs, Chinese pupils are on average two years ahead.

Hard work has its place of course. So too an aspirational desire to succeed. British children of Chinese ethnicity on average out perform peers in GCSE exams even without the linguistic advantage. It seems Tiger Mums can drive their children to conquer even our opaque number system.