# What Is The Secret To Being Good At Maths?

## More from Youth Ki Awaaz

By Steson Lo, and Sally Andrews:

There is a common belief that Asians are naturally gifted at maths.

Asian countries like Singapore and Japan lead the ranks in first and second position on maths performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tables – an international survey that ranks education systems worldwide – while Australia sits around 12th.

What is the secret to being good at maths? Are you simply born clever, or is it the result of a lot of hard work?

To understand the reasons behind exceptional maths performance, I travelled to Japan to see how Japanese children are able to instantly multiply three- or four-digit numbers together in their head.

### How Children Are Taught Maths In Japan

From the age of 7 or 8, all Japanese children are taught the times table jingle kuku.

“Ku” is the Japanese word for “nine”, and the title reflects the final line of the jingle, which is simply “nine nine (is) eight-one”.

Children rote learn the jingle and are made to recite it with speed in class and at home.

Local competitions pitch second-graders against each other to see how fast they can rap all 81 lines of the kuku.

This takes lots of practice with a stopwatch. The constant association between the problem and the correct answer eventually allows the child to know the answer to the problem as soon as they see it.

As the popular science writer Alex Bellos noted, Japanese adults know that 7×7=49, not because they can remember the maths, but because the music of “seven seven forty-nine” sounds right.

Some Japanese children also attend after-school maths programs. In May, I visited a school in Tokyo specialising in abacus instruction for primary and high school students. This was one of about 20,000 schools operating independently throughout Japan.

Here, the students start by learning how to use a physical abacus to perform arithmetic calculations. They then progress to using the mental abacus by simply imagining the movement of the beads.

Children at the abacus school dedicate a phenomenal one to two hours on two to four evenings a week to practising arithmetic drills on pre-set worksheets at speed.

This is on top of the four 45-minute maths lessons per week allotted by the Japanese government.

After a couple of years at the school, the very best students can multiply seven- and eight-digit numbers in their head faster than Australian children can say the solution to 7×8.

### Why Australian Schools Are Against Rote Learning

Despite the impressive performance of these Japanese children, the intensive “drill and kill” approach used by abacus schools is derided in countries like Australia where educators explicitly discourage such practice.

In Victoria, schools have recently been encouraged to throw away textbooks and old worksheets, teachers discouraged from teaching mathematical formula, and children warned against learning their times tables by rote.

These recommendations follow from the ideas of American psychologist Jerome Bruner who argued that learning is most effective when children actively discover concepts for themselves.

Since then, rote learning methods in which children spend most of their time memorising facts, following prescribed formula and completing drills are widely perceived to contribute poorly to deep understanding of mathematics.

However, research suggests that memorisation and rote learning remain important classroom techniques.

According to cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, children cannot appreciate the relationship between mathematical concepts if all of their mental resources are used to execute simple arithmetic operations.

As problems become more difficult, practice and rote learning are essential in speeding up some of these operations so they become automatic. This allows the child to devote more of their cognitive resources towards higher-level understanding.

Unfortunately, repetitive practice is not always fun.

One reason educators shy away from rote learning techniques is because they undermine children’s engagement and motivation.

### The Drive To Succeed

But Japanese children at the abacus school enjoy performing calculations at speed.

Many treat mental calculation like a sport and participate in various local, regional and national competitions. These are not restricted to boys. I attended a regional competition for young girls while I was in Japan.

This contrasts with an increasing avoidance of competition in Australia, where children are cocooned from the realities of failure as well as the rewards of success.

In junior Australian Football League sporting policy, for example, children under 10 now play football with no points, no scoreboards, no awards and no recognition of individual performance.

Removing these objective benchmarks of performance leaves children with nothing to strive for.

### When Passion Breeds Talent

Stars are made, not born. Research shows it takes at least 10,000 hours of intense training to become expert in a particular area. High achievers in maths sustain these hours because they are motivated to excel.

But deliberate practice is hard work. From ever faster times in kuku recitation to increasingly longer mental arithmetic problems, my observations in Japan show that Japanese children use competition to fuel their passion for maths.

Such competition is lacking in Australia.

Discovery-based methods for maths instruction might be more enjoyable, but they are also less effective at producing fast and accurate performance at an elite level.

How can we encourage Australians to share the Asian love of competitive maths?

In China, the television game show Super Brain attracted 22 million viewers in March as contestants battled to solve increasingly difficult arithmetic problems.

So given the recent success of The Great Australian Spelling Bee in generating renewed interest in spelling, perhaps what we need now is The Great Australian Times Tables to motivate children to achieve the same levels of maths performance as our Asian neighbours.

Steson Lo, is a PhD candidate at University of Sydney and Sally Andrews is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at University of Sydney

You must be to comment.
1. #### Batman

The secret is ‘practice’. Stop being lazy, spend hours practicing everyday and you will excel at it. Stop trying to find shortcuts, there aren’t any.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

• Mobilising young people between the age of 18-35 to become ‘Eco-Period Champions’ by making the switch to a sustainable menstrual alternative and becoming advocates for the project
• All existing and upcoming public institutions (pink toilets, washrooms, schools, colleges, government offices, government buildings) across East Delhi to have affordable provisions for sustainable menstrual product options

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.