Why are Chinese-Americans so good at math?

Chinese-American kids do better at math than other American kids, starting their first days in kindergarten ahead of their peers and increasing their lead as the years go by. How so? One oft-cited explanation is that Chinese and Chinese-American parents drill their kids on counting and simple addition during their preschool years, giving them a stronger base of memorized math facts to start with. Does that explain the whole advantage? A recent study suggests the answer is yes . . . and no.

In a new study, researchers gave Chinese-American and Caucasian American kindergartners two kinds of problems. One involved simple addition, on which the Chinese-American kids, being more experienced, did better. In the other kind of problem, the kids were given numbers between 1 and 100 and asked to place each one on a fresh number line with 0 at one end, 100 on the other, and nothing in between. Although none of the kids had seen this sort of problem before, the Chinese-American kids again did better. This shows, say the researchers, that the Chinese-American kids didn’t have an edge just because they’d memorized more math facts; the counting on fingers and adding they’d done during preschool had given them a better sense of numerical relations. It made them more mathy.

What? You don’t like quizzing your toddler on basic addition? Don’t despair: The same researchers found that kids can build similar math skills with numerical board games like Chutes and Ladders. So put away that Game Boy, break out the dice, and start counting!

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Why are Chinese-Americans so good at math?