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While teaching a primary school maths lesson, Angel Mok threw her students a curly question. She has never forgotten their response. “All of a sudden, the students from the Anglo background looked at the students from the Asian background, and said, ‘ask them, they will know’.

“I thought, ‘where did these seven-year-old children get that attitude from?'”

Dr Mok is now an education academic, but she is still fascinated by that question. Her years of research have identified a recurrent theme; that families with a Chinese background, unlike those from other backgrounds, are not scared of maths.

Nor do they hold onto the popular myth of the “maths brain” – the idea that maths is innate rather than learned, says Dr Mok, who now works at the University of New England. “I can’t help but think, ‘do Anglo-Australian children have a “sports brain”, or an “art brain”?

Whatever Chinese families are doing, it’s working. A 2014 study by John Jerrim from the University of London found second-generation east Asian immigrants outperform their Australian-born peers in maths on Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests by the equivalent of two and a half years worth of schooling.

This happens even, as Dr Jerrim said, “within average-performing educational systems”.

In her most recent research, Dr Mok interviewed Chinese-born parents. All believed maths was a skill that could be mastered. “They are not scared of it. They are very calm when they talk about maths. ‘I will find ways to help my children’, rather than, ‘I am not good at maths myself, I can’t do this’,” said Dr Mok.

Their responses supported wider research that the Confucius culture – the idea that with effort and willpower, everyone can achieve – is one of the reasons why students from Chinese heritage do so much better than their peers in Australia.

“[That culture] makes a difference in how parents support their children,” said Dr Mok. “It’s not about talent. If you practice, you will become better. People say, ‘they are good at maths because their parents send them to coaching college’. But why do they send the kids to the coaching college in the first place?

“I always compare it to doing sports in Australia. Anglo-Australian families might say, ‘My child is not very good at kicking or throwing, so I’ll do more. I’ll find a sports club for her, so she can practice that skill more with her friends’. It’s quite similar.”

The Confucius culture is related to one of the concepts Australian educators are talking aAbout with increasing enthusiasm – the growth mindset.

The world is changing so rapidly that no one knows which skills students of today will need in the workforce of tomorrow, or so the thinking goes. So their most valuable lesson is how to learn, rather than knowledge itself.

In a recent interview with the Herald, NSW Education Department Secretary Mark Scott said educators were increasingly thinking about equipping students to be lifelong learners.

“A growth mindset in someone indicates they back their ability to learn, they back their ability to go into an area that they don’t have an understanding of, and know that if they apply themselves, work hard, [and] commit themselves to mastery, they can get to a point of mastery,” he said.

Cultural attitudes are not the only factor at play, however. As Dr Mok points out, there are many variables. “Not everyone wants to come to another country, so those people who make the decision to live in Australia, for example, might be more determined. They might have more money, or have come from the upper classes.”

Another factor is language. Maths does not require sophisticated English, nor is there any subjectivity in its marking. “As one of my participants said, ‘right is right, wrong is wrong’. Whereas language is more subjective. Writing is about interpretation, especially if you are coming from a different cultural and linguistic background.”

Kam Wong, from Sydney’s north, was born in Hong Kong, where the study of maths was essential, given it was a prerequisite for every university course including history, which she studied. She is keen for her children to have confidence in it too, and reinforces maths concepts with them in day-to-day life – measuring ingredients for cakes, or working out discounts at the supermarket. “My daughter really wants to work in IT, so she needs to know about maths.”

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