PISA leans toward Vietnam

Vietnam and mathematics education

I’m in Vietnam on holidays and enjoying the beautiful scenery and delicious food. I’ve been to Thailand, Cambodia, and China, and I would say Vietnam possesses elements of all these cultures, and of course, has its own unique identity forged over millennia of civilization. The pervasive traffic reminds me of India.

By western standards, Vietnam is a poor country. The average household income here is about $5,000 (USD) per year, compared to just over $50,000 in the US. To give you some context, you can have dinner for two with beers at a street-side diner in Ho Chi Minh City for under $10, and pick up a (vegan!) Banh mi sandwich on the street for 45 cents in Nha Trang.

Despite the economic challenges faced by the Vietnamese, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores for 2015 (announced in December 2016), place the country well ahead of many richer nations. PISA is a test taken by fifteen-year-olds in over seventy countries, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.  PISA tests students in mathematics, science, and reading comprehension.

Astoundingly, the bottom ten percent of Vietnamese children score better in PISA than the average American child. Vietnam ranks eighth overall in science scores. In mathematics, Vietnam beats out countries such as England, Russia, Germany, and the US.

When asked about Vietnam’s strong PISA scores, the country’s education minister, Phung Xuan Nha said:  “Vietnamese parents can sacrifice everything, sell their houses and land just to give their children an education.”

Amazing stuff. I can appreciate that perspective. My parents sacrificed to ensure their children had the best education. They instilled in us a strong desire to learn, an ethic for hard work, and confidence that we could better ourselves through an education they never could access in post-World War II Italy.

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Vietnamese students studying mathematics.

Vietnamese schools stress the natural sciences and mathematics, and rely heavily on exams. I doubt they have ever heard of phrases like “New math”. While I am a fan of new and creative teaching techniques, I think our children need lengthy practice to master basic mathematics. Other Asian countries like China and Japan have high PISA scores, with Singapore taking the top place. Canada ranks fairly well overall: ranking seventh in Science and tenth in mathematics. Finland, Estonia, and Canada rank highest among European and North American nations in PISA math scores.

Math lessons from Nam

What is the teachable moment in the Vietnamese high PISA scores? I’ve been a proponent on this blog for strengthening our educational system in STEM. We’ve invested heavily in this direction in my province of Ontario, and I hope we do more. Ontario, however, lags behind other provinces such as Quebec and British Colombia in mathematics scores. That is a shame but also an opportunity to improve.

Children need to master basic mathematics, and they also need to be engaged in more conceptual mathematical ideas much earlier. To be frank, most students come to university without the ability to think mathematically. Part of the issue is structural: I took Calculus in high school, but kids now don’t, owing in part to the elimination of Grade 13. Our teenagers are simply not getting enough mathematics training to be successful in university. Professors are under enormous pressure to add weeks of review to introductory Calculus and linear algebra courses; without this remediation, students would be lost with concepts like inverse functions, logarithms, and trigonometry.

Having taught introductory Calculus in universities to thousands of students over many years, I can tell you that the lack of mastery of basic mathematics is the greatest impediment to learning more advanced mathematical concepts. I can readily teach first-year students about derivatives, integrals, and vector spaces. However, students get stuck factoring quadratic polynomials or become confused about the use of radicals. You need a strong foundation in order to build a lasting, structurally sound understanding of mathematics.

Common Core is an educational initiative in the US to improve math and language skills, and it has become adopted by certain states. The initiative met with mixed results, with some claiming it is improving dropout rates, and others (like the individual below, whose YouTube video went viral) saying it makes mathematics training needlessly complicated.

I use methods like these myself sometimes, reinforcing the stereotype that mathematicians are bad at basic arithmetic. For example, if I need to multiply 31 and 14, I may use the distributive law: multiply 4 and 31, multiply 10 and 31, and then add the two values. The difference is that I also know the traditional carry method of multiplication. Shouldn’t children master that method first, or at least both methods simultaneously?

When heralding the importance of STEM, I’m not downplaying in any way the importance of the arts, humanities, or social sciences. Students need to be academically well-rounded to be successful. However, there needs to be greater appreciation of the importance of mathematical education in the 21st century. So much of our culture is intertwined with science and engineering. Mathematics is the language you need to talk quantitatively about the universe.

In addition, parents play a critical role. They need to encourage their children to study mathematics, and be especially encouraging to young girls, who’ve been traditionally discouraged to study STEM. Please reinforce the importance of mathematics early with your own children, and set expectations for them to do well in mathematics in school from kindergarten to Grade 12 and beyond. If you don’t, then who will?

What do you think is the best way to teach mathematics to children? Is Common Core the answer? What do the high Vietnamese PISA scores tell us about western education?

Afterword: Vietnamese mathematicians

To conclude, I couldn’t resist highlighting a few of the top Vietnamese mathematicians. Interestingly, they all live in the US! Countries like the US and Canada have strong advanced mathematical cultures in our universities and in research labs in industry. Part of that success comes from the fact that we aggressively pursue world-class mathematicians to work there (translation: institutions pay big salaries and woo stars with endowed research chairs).

Ngô Bảo Châu is the first Vietnamese mathematician to win the Fields medal, which is considered the top honor in mathematics. Châu works on automorphic forms and is a professor at University of Chicago.

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University of Chicago mathematician Ngô Bảo Châu.

It was a pleasure years ago to have lunch with Van Vu when he was at UCSD (he’s now at Yale University). Van is a Pólya prize and Fulkerson prize winner, and works in combinatorics and random graphs and matrices.

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Yale mathematician Van Vu.

I don’t know personally any Vietnamese mathematicians working in Vietnam, but it’s pleasing find out that they have an Institute of Mathematics in Hanoi. I’d like to learn more about the advanced mathematics culture here.

Anthony Bonato

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