The Myth Of The Asian Math Genius

British Education Minister Elizabeth Truss attends a lesson in Shanghai
British Education Minister Elizabeth Truss attends a lesson in Shanghai

SHANGHAI — After the excellent performance of Shanghai children in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an expert delegation led by British Education Minister Elizabeth Truss paid a visit to Shanghai recently to learn from the city's experience in teaching – and teaching math, in particular.

The local press reported that the visiting delegation was utterly stunned by the Shanghai schools' demonstration. They were particularly impressed with the children’s mastery of the multiplication tables, which made mental arithmetic easy for them. Now Britain has even asked to invite 60 Shanghai school teachers to teach in the UK.

I certainly hope that a Chinese pedagogic approach is so great that the world can learn from it. I was once asked by my American professor about pedagogy from a Chinese view. The professor was pretty disappointed with my answer: "This is still American thinking. What I’m interested to know is what the East’s unique contribution of this issue is."

Needless to say, I was embarrassed. I would love to proudly declare that a Chinese approach to education is the model for the world. But alas, that does not seem to be the point.

According to my observation of American school homework, while recalling my own learning in China as a child, I notice that structurally American and Chinese schools cultivate pupils’ knowledge and ability differently.

Therefore, it is far too simplistic to make such conclusions as “American school’s mathematics is simpler than that of a Chinese school” or “Chinese students' basic mathematical skills are more solid.”

Like in an archery competition, only if every competitor uses the same target can a fair comparison be made. If there exist structural differences of content and the setting of skills (i.e. the what), simply comparing the outcomes (the how) won’t make sense.

When people say that Chinese students’ basic mathematical skills are good it usually refers to their good grasp of basic facts. For instance Chinese pupils are indeed better in mental arithmetic and in memorizing their times tables. However, when it comes down to good or bad performance, Chinese and Americans are probably not measured with the same standard, at least up to now.

In the United States, primary and secondary school teachers like to emphasize "higher order thinking skills", abbreviated as HOTS. Indeed, possessing these “HOTS” skills makes one “cool” in America: being able to judge performance, an analytical grasp of logic, ability in data analysis and interpretation, capability of coming up with a question and basic communication skills. Some of these characteristics are also linked to reading and writing capabilities.

In my view there exists a certain bias in this American educational approach – it looks down on “low-end” skills and lays particular stress from a young age on the “high-end” skills. Yet every skyscraper starts from zero. Without the base-level support, thinking of "knowledge" and "understanding,” and training high-end skills, would be like building castles in the air.

In this regard the United States has begun to reform its approach, and is introducing a “Common Core State Standards Initiative” so that at the end of each grade pupils acquire a similar standard of basic skills and are prepared for further learning.

Likewise, taking into account the balance and rationality of knowledge structures, the Chinese education system would benefit by increasing students' cultivation of "high-end skills."

It should be said that Chinese and American education approaches have their own merits respectively. It is not necessarily true that Americans' "basic skills" are worse than those of the Chinese. For example, a Chinese colleague here in America told me just the other day that he is attending math classes in his spare time. I asked him why and he told me his basic math skills are not great. Contrary to the general view that the Chinese have a firmer foundation in math, he believes that China's math teaching is too focused on abstruse questions when pupils don't really have sufficient comprehension.

Instead the American teachers teach not only "what" but also "why." He said he finally got to understand certain subjects that he didn't understand after re-learning it again in America.

What is most worthy of learning from the Chinese is not necessarily their specific pedagogic methods but the great importance the whole Chinese society attaches to education.

I have no clue what it's like in the UK. But I feel there is some sort of anti-intellectual culture among American adults. When people say that their math is very poor it often sounds like they are actually proud of it. And it is true that the majority of Americans are not great in calculating simple sums.

Such a mentality naturally has an impact on children. One of my American colleagues told me that his son was worried about being popular, and therefore would occasionally deliberately perform less well in math.

Meanwhile, Chinese families don't have such concerns. Moreover, because of cultural differences many Chinese families who live in the United States continue to spur on their children to get good scores and ignore this American "hidden rule."

My son does not receive any particular training in math, but to our surprise he was awarded first prize in our city's math competition recently. We couldn't care less about him being "cool" like the American children. And my son even jokingly announced that he is most pleased to be the "Asian math nerd."

Family environment is what influences children most. Chinese students' strength is, above all, their endurance and their willingness to work hard. This is of course a good habit, and is probably the very "skill" that is most worthy of teaching to American kids.

*Nanqiao is a US-based education curriculum design specialist.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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