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What Can We Learn from Comparing the Performance of Asian and North American Students?

by Thomas J. Cooney
November 2001

lessons and resources In our zeal to improve mathematics education in North America, we often turn to other approaches or societies that have demonstrated strong student performance. What can we learn from those societies about mathematics education? More important, what, if anything, can we adapt and adopt into our own system of educating students? The mathematics performance of students in various Asian countries is a case in point.

On the one hand, we admire the performance of Asian students compared with the performance of our own students. But on the other hand, we sometimes wonder about the circumstances that lead to those results and the implications that exist for our own instructional programs. Some educators believe that the relatively low or mediocre performance of North American students on international tests says little about what we should be doing to revise or reform our teaching of mathematics. Others suggest that such comparisons do not bode well for maintaining our technologically dependent society.

Perhaps the interesting part of the story about the high-achieving Asian students is not so much the achievement itself but the societal conditions that promote that achievement. What conditions are responsible for their students' better achievement? To what extent are we willing to adopt aspects of the Asian system in our own schools?

In this issue of Mathematics Education Dialogues, educators express their views about what we should learn from international test comparisons and about the factors that might contribute to the superior performance of Asian students. Observers of the Japanese system share their impressions of mathematics teaching and learning in Japan. Other Asian contributors share their thoughts about what they believe contributes to that superior achievement. We must decide which, if any, of their societal circumstances have implications for our society's educational system in general and for mathematics education in particular. We can learn valuable lessons from our Asian counterparts, but as several of the contributors note, we must be careful in drawing conclusions. On behalf of the Editorial Panel, I invite readers to express their opinions on what those lessons might be.


Thomas J. Cooney
For the Editorial Panel 


  Thomas J. Cooney is a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. His career, which spans more than 40 years, has focused on the teaching of mathematics and working with teachers of mathematics. His current interests include teachers' use of open-ended questions.




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