Flunking mathematics? It's all down to culture

US lags world in education
US lags world in education

Being good at mathematics has never been more important, with strong numerical skills in demand by employers across the worlds of business and finance and beyond. But countries like the U.S. and U.K are falling behind, and experts say it could have more to do with culture than teaching.

"The main difference between the West and East come(s) down to culture, rather than strictly what happens in the classroom," said Alex Bellos, author of an introduction to mathematical ideas called "The Grapes of Math".

"Also, in England especially, and in the U.S. too, there is this feeling that math is uncool. Math is difficult, it's boring, and it's not relevant."

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According to the results of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Shanghai tops the ranking of countries when it comes to mathematics, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.

But while Asia dominates the top ten, some of the West's most developed economies perform surprisingly badly, with the U.K. ranking 26th in the world, and the U.S. trailing behind at number 36.

In demand

Having poor numeracy skills can seriously harm employment prospects, and not just in the financial sector.

Martin Constantinides, director of high-tech recruitment firm ECM Selection, stressed that strong math skills were in demand across all industries, as the processing of big data becomes more prevalent.

But the most demanding numerical roles - such as quantitative analysts, or quants – were often landed by Asian candidates, according to Constantinides.

"Certainly, we do see a lot of people with an Asian background who end up in the financial sector," he told CNBC. "It could be down to cultural differences. They're encouraged from a very young age to apply themselves more than people in the U.K."

Poor numeracy could even have a serious economic impact. In March, British charity National Numeracy claimed that, each year, low levels of numeracy cost the U.K. economy around £20.2 billion ($34 billion) – or approximately 1.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

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In an effort not to be left behind by their Asian counterparts, both the U.K. and U.S. have launched a number of initiatives to boost the teaching of math in their school. Attempts to "look East" even saw the U.K. fly in Chinese teachers to help in an overhaul of the way the subject is taught in schools earlier this year.

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But this focus on teaching might not be the only answer, according to Professor Lianghuo Fan, who was brought up in China, but is now head of Southampton University's Mathematics and Science Education Research Centre in the U.K.

"Most of the differences between Asia and the West are culturally related," he told CNBC. "Parents have higher expectations, so that affects the children's attitude and behaviors and learning of that subject."

Why the difference?

Bellos, who has studied cultural responses to numbers across the world, highlighted a number of reasons for this different attitude. Firstly, in many Asian countries, parents have a vested interest in their child's mathematical ability.

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"One of the cultural reasons for that, a lot is invested in your children's education – it's the cultural norm, in later years, for your children to send you money. Most people of a working age will give some money to their parents," he told CNBC.

Another cultural reason behind the divergent math ability is that numbers are a lot more prominent in many Asian cultures, according to Bellos. Lucky numbers play a much greater role, for instance, and in Japan odd numbers are preferred to even numbers.

"You'd have thought the idea of being more superstitious and having more of an emotional engagement with numbers is anti-scientific. But actually it goes together with being more numerate. Numbers are part of human life so let's just embrace them," he added.

School culture

And it's not just the culture at home that has an impact – it also travels to the classroom.

Fan said that one result of higher parental expectations was more challenging math syllabuses. Plus, almost all students are required to sit a math exam as part of their university entrance exam.

"Another important thing that is very visible in research is that teachers spend much more time on real teaching (in China). And much less time on classroom management, like disciplinary matters," he said. "This is something we have to tackle (in the U.K.)."

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Asian schools also have more physical approach to math, which makes the subject more appealing to youngsters, according to Bellos. He highlighted the popularity of the abacus across Asia. In Japan, for instance, after-school "Abacus Club" is hugely popular.

"The abacus is part of culture in a way that it isn't here. No one knows if using an abacus makes you better at math, but something about it being physical makes it a bit more fun," he said.

Beyond the physical, there is also a more practical approach to numeracy – which recruiter Constantinides said was crucial when it comes to getting that all-important job.

"In this country there has been more of a tradition of people studying subjects purely for academic interest without much regard for how their experience will be applicable in the real world," he said.

"There is a cultural difference there. Other nationalities are more hardnosed about that. They're more likely to study applied math and statistics which are far more geared to eventual employment."