Originally published at AsianCorrespondent.com on 18th December 2014

In Europe and North America there is a commonly held belief that Asian students are inherently good at Mathematics. This stereotype has been reinforced in recent years by the success of China, Singapore, Korea and Japan in international mathematics rankings compiled by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment. The most recently published results from 2012 are an excellent example with Asia dominating the top 7 – China 1st, Singapore 2nd, Hong Kong 3rd, Taiwan 4th, South Korea 5th, Macau 7th and Japan 8th.

However this dominance of the PISA mathematics rankings is monopolized by East Asian nations (with the exception of Singapore) that culturally adhere to Confucian ethics. Vietnam at number 17 is the only other Asian country to make a mark on the top 20. In stark contrast, the remaining South East Asian nations all fall into the bottom quarter of the table, with Thailand 50th, Malaysia 52nd and Indonesia 64th from 65 nations.

So what can Southeast Asian nations do to emulate the success of their northern neighbours?

According to a recent report by John Jerrim it seems that their success is very difficult to replicate. Jerrim suggests that East Asia’s success in international academic tests is linked with culture rather than curriculum. He explains, “the attitudes and beliefs East Asian parents instill in their children make an important contribution to their high levels of academic achievement”.

He goes on to claim that other countries hoping to match the performance of East Asian nations face an almost insurmountable challenge: “This goal may only be achieved with widespread cultural change, where a hard work ethic and a strong belief in the value of education is displayed by all families and instilled in every child.”

If it’s this Confucian work ethic that is driving East Asian students to excel in Mathematics and Science, where does that leave learners in Southeast Asia? Government agencies can encourage families to give their children’s education greater priority but these changes in behaviour take time and cannot be guaranteed.

A more realistic starting point in efforts to raise mathematics standards would be improvements in classroom instruction through continual professional development. Over the past six months a team of educators from Australia have been providing such a programme to mathematics teachers in Northern Thailand with the aim of doing just that – supporting Thai teachers to adopt modern teaching pedagogies and make their mathematics lessons more effective.

This initiative has been led by Dr Tippawan Nuntrakune, a mathematics professor from Queensland University of Technology, and Dr Calvin Irons and Rosemary Irons, Mathematics professors, who have spent 40 years researching appropriate methods for teaching primary mathematics.

I was fortunate enough to join one of their workshops and met with Dr Irons who explained the importance of mathematics in today’s world: “In the 21st century, there is a far greater need for mathematics in all aspects of society. Technology has accelerated the applications of mathematics in all jobs and careers. It is impossible to avoid knowing mathematics.”

He went on to highlight how the focus of mathematics teaching in the 21st Century differs from the past- explaining the focus is now on “learning and then knowing how to use the concepts that underlie all of mathematics”.

At the core of this new approach to mathematics teaching is the need to make the activities, lessons, ideas and concepts more relevant to the students. For too long students have been taught mathematics as a standalone concept with symbols and formulas that students have difficulty relating to the real world. This detachment of mathematics from students’ everyday life is what makes students struggle with problem solving and the application of mathematics to real life situations.

To overcome this disconnect teachers need to approach mathematics teaching from real world situations that the students can relate to before labeling them as concepts with mathematical symbols. Calvin explains that, “understanding mathematical concepts means building a picture in the mind of the learner, irrespective of the age. For young children it is important for them to understand and have a picture for the operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Typically, the focus on learning the operations is the use of symbols, the ‘+’, ‘-‘, ‘x’, and ‘÷’ signs. The use of these symbols does not provide a picture of the ideas, which enable the children to apply the mathematical ideas.”

The traditional order in which a mathematical concept is taught needs to be restructured with a new order that gradually progresses from image to vocabulary to symbol.

Images and actions

In the classroom teachers should initially introducing mathematical principles through stories, images and activities. The teacher should introduce a variety of situations in which a mathematical operation is carried out. In the case of addition it can be putting apples into a basket, people getting onto a bus, returning books to the library or placing pencils into a pencil case. At the same time it is important that students are given the opportunity to physically act out these operations using classroom materials such as; pencils, erasers, beads, rubber bands and blocks.

Vocabulary

Only after the students become confident with this operation, should the teacher then introduce mathematical terms, in this case ‘add’ and ‘plus’. It’s important that the students understand that these are umbrella terms that represent all the actions the students have been doing – putting apples into a basket, people getting onto a bus, etc..

Symbols

Finally once the students become confident with these mathematical terms, and continue to understand they represent a wide range of actions, can the symbol ‘+’ finally be introduced.

This approach is different to how Mathematics is taught in many traditional classrooms where teachers jump straight to the use of mathematical symbols without giving the students proper opportunity to comprehend what this symbol represents. Learning mathematics as a concept detached from real world actions creates difficulties for students in their ability to apply mathematics principals to the real life situations. Many Mathematics teachers complain students always struggle with word problems, not because of Mathematic ability but because of their inability to link the real world situation with the correct Mathematics operations.

Last month, I had the opportunity to observe some Thai teachers that have been participating in this programme of professional development and was pleased to see some positive results. The mathematics lessons were lively and productive and one group of students I spoke with said, “maths used to be boring but now it’s our favorite subject”.

Tippawan Nuntrakune, Rosemary Irons and Calvin Irons also met with senior officials at the Thai Ministry of Education in Bangkok to share ideas and offer their support. The current government has promised reforms to Thailand’s educations system and where better place to start than by raising Mathematic standards? While the idea of challenging East Asian’s dominance of the PISA top 10 is clearly unrealistic, a move out of the bottom quarter and into a middle table position is genuinely achievable if Mathematics teachers across Southeast Asia are given sufficient training and support to adopt effective teaching pedagogies.