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Why Kids In Asia Keep Crushing Those International Math Assessment Tests

It should go without saying that stereotyping is hateful at worse, ignorant at best (unless you’re Donald Trump, and then apparently it’s a campaign platform). And yet the prevailing stereotype of Asian students as math whizzes persist, in part because, by some measures, it’s objectively true.

On the 2012 OECD PISA exams, which compare test results of 15-year-olds in more than 50 countries, the top 7 results in math were held by Asian countries. But the whole idea that these kids are good at math has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with education, communication, and degustation.

Why Asian Students Are Better At Math Flickr / Shaun Wong

So, what are those countries doing right? In addition to a strong work ethic and cultures that prize education, many of them employ innovative teaching methods. The Singapore math method, for example, limits the number of math concepts students learn each year, focuses on problem-solving over rote memorization, and adds a “pictorial” step in between the “concrete” and “abstract” steps in traditional curriculums. It’s so innovative, Singaporean parents are discouraged from trying to teach their kids math, so you might want to think about proposing it to your own kid’s teacher.

According to Canada’s most famous frizzy-haired contrarian, language plays a role, too. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains how a 7-digit sequence is twice as likely to be remembered by Chinese speakers as English speakers, because the Chinese word for each number is so much shorter. There’s a limit to how much a brain can remember, and how quickly, and some Asian languages may be optimized for it.

Why Asian Students Are Better at Math Flickr / Angie Harms

Then, there’s the food. Research from U.C. Santa Barbara and U Pitt examined breast milk in 28 countries and found that milk high in Omega-3 and low in Omega-6 was a better predictor of that nation’s academic performance than GDP or dollars spent per student. Guess which babies are getting the best milk? Japan, China, and South Korea — all countries that are known for having diets packed with Omega-3-rich fish and leafy greens.

Looks like you’re ordering sushi tonight.