Culture Affects the Way Students Learn Mathematics Term Paper

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culture affects the way students learn mathematics, and how different cultures learn differently. Students in Korea and Japan learn differently than students in the United States for a number of reasons. Statistically, Asian students seem to do better at mathematics than American children do, and they way they learn their mathematics at an early age may be on reason this is so.

Identification and Investigation

US students often show lower test scores in understanding mathematics, while Asian students consistently score higher. There are many reasons for this, from different cultures to different methods of instruction. For example, one researcher found that Japanese children think of numbers differently, and see their relationships in depth. She writes, "She discovered part of the reason was the way they named their numbers. Following ten, they say, "ten 1, ten 2, ten 3" for 11, 12, 13, and say "2-ten, 2-ten 1, 2-ten 2" for 20, 21, 22. This continues all the way to 9-ten 9 (99). This strategy is taught to young children in order to help them understand place value" (Cotter, 2009, p. 2). It also helps them understand the relationship of numbers and how they work together, something that is often missing in American mathematics education.

Memorization is used in both systems, but in Asia, students pick their main field of study much earlier, usually in elementary school, so those more interested in math and science will follow that path, while others follow the humanities. In addition, there are separated exams in Asia, which helps students retain more information. Another writer notes, "The norm in Asian universities is to have large lecture courses with exams at the end of the semester, followed by exams at the end of the degree program. That approach provides an additional retrieval opportunity separated in time, which is good" (Bharucha, 2008). Another approach is to limit class size, both in elementary and secondary education. Larger classes are not only difficult to manage, they allow children to fall behind and not keep up with the rest of the class, which can be detrimental to their learning.

One approach by many U.S. educators is to make mathematics more fun, rather than simple memorization of numbers and problems. Another writer states, "Several speakers acknowledged that the natural curiosity of a child is engaged best in what is, at heart, a form of play connecting the child to the world around him; that it is more fun - and more real - for students to learn not solely by the book. Such learning also increases demands on teachers" (Geracimos, 2007, p. BO1). However, the Japanese use a very different approach to mathematics. Another writer states, "The Japanese work with a national math curriculum, one often described as carefully thought out, tightly woven, and neatly linked from grade level to grade level. It homes in on fewer concepts than U.S. curricula, but helps students more fully absorb these" (Editors, 2000). It is also shown that Japanese teachers are more flexible in the classroom, and tend to challenge their students more effectively.

Why the Question was Chosen

This question is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it is known that Asian children have consistently higher test scores in mathematics, while Americans do not, so clearly something is not right in our method of teaching mathematics. Another writer notes, "In international tests, Japanese students outperform U.S. students in math skills and concepts. Despite cultural differences, many educators insist that there is much U.S. teachers could learn from how they learn" (Editors, 2000). Second, culture plays an important role in learning, and these two cultures are very similar and dissimilar at the same time. In Japan, education is viewed as highly important for future success. In America, there is not quite so much emphasis put on education in many families, and it changes how children view the importance of education between the cultures. My own experience has been that mathematics has been a challenge to me, and I began to wonder how others seemed to learn it relatively easily, which led to this review and inquiry.

Review of Literature

Bharucha, J. (2008). America can teach Asia a lot about science, technology, and math.

Chronicle of Higher Education; Vol. 54 Issue 20, pA33-A34.

A journal article that talks about ways Americans can influence Japanese education, refuting that the Japanese are so advanced in their science and mathematics education.

Cotter, J. (2009). Right start mathematics. Retrieved 13 Nov. 2009 from the Web site: 1-5.

A journal article with references that discusses an alternative form of math education for parents. This form of education uses an abacus to introduce mathematics concepts to children, along with making mathematics more fun and interesting.

Editors. (2000). How Japanese students learn math. Christian Science Monitor; Vol. 92 Issue 127, p17.

This is a comprehensive article on Japanese teaching methods in mathematics, and it is a primary source for this document. The editors studied a Japanese school, run by the Japanese government, located here in the United States for Japanese nationals working in the country. They learned a lot about how Japanese teachers teach, and what that means for their students.

Geracimos, A. (2007). Inquiring Minds Want to Know; Educators Discuss New Ways to Help Students Learn Science. The Washington Times, p. B01.

A newspaper article about an education conference on teaching in America, and what needs to change to help children learn more effectively.

Lee, K.S, & Carrasquillo, A. (2006). Korean college students in United States: perceptions of professors and students. College Student Journal; Vol. 40 Issue 2, p442-456.

This journal article discusses how Korean students learn in the United States, and what they think of American higher education.

Tight, M. (2009). International handbook of higher education. New York: Routledge.

This current textbook contains a chapter on how Asian students learn. While it centers on Chinese students, it does talk about Japan and their learning abilities, as well.

Collection of Data

I plan to collect quantitative and qualitative data and studies that I will use to answer the question. I will do research on studies on learning in Japan, Korea, and the United States, and I will look at research into how mathematics is taught in both countries. I will use library resources, as well as educational research databases to find literature that is applicable to my research. I was unable to find specific data on how Korean children learn in their own country, but was able to find information on Korean students in America and how they learn. Two authors note, Although educators have investigated teachers' attitudes toward cultural/ethnic groups, there are few studies on Korean students, especially at the college level" (Lee & Carrasquillo, 2006, p. 442). For that reason, the discussion of Korean students will be limited in this study.

Analysis and Interpretation

The data indicates that students in Japan and the United States learn differently because of cultural differences, but because of educational differences, as well. The CSM editors continue, "U.S. math classes tend to begin with an explanation by the teacher, followed by the students working on their own at related problems. Japanese teachers generally start by tossing out a problem and requiring students to grapple with it, often in groups" (Editors, 2000). In addition, Japanese teachers are more flexible, and they work together as teams to create better lesson plans. The editors continue, "Teachers plan lessons as a team, and observe one another in the classroom. Sometimes a single lesson will be polished over the course of years. Particularly successful lessons are shared on a national basis" (Editors, 2000). Clearly, the Japanese use different and unique teaching techniques, and they seem to be more effective in teaching math to their students.


The findings are that while American schools do some things well, they are markedly behind in mathematics in many areas. Studies show that the methods American teachers use are not as effective as those Japanese teachers use, and that Japanese students are more creative in their learning techniques, which makes learning math more fun and exciting. Author Cotter continues, "Mathematics instruction must include the teaching of many strategies to empower all students to become successful problem solvers. Students need to be able to have a general understanding of how to analyze a problem and how to choose the most useful strategy for solving the problem" (Cotter, 2009, p.3). Without implementing different teaching strategies, it will be difficult for American students to keep up with their Asian counterparts.

In addition, studies on Asian (Korean) students studying in America show some very different learning styles. Korean students tend to have trouble with the English language, they rarely make eye contact, they give instructors absolute control in the classroom, and they prefer large lectures. They also do not often interact in the classroom, and they have trouble with critical thinking and answering negative questions (Lee & Carrasquillo, 2006, p. 442).


The implications for American students are quite clear. Asian students, particularly…[continue]

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