Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Fitness Lessons From Asian Math Students

Why are Asian students so good at math?

This question has intrigued US educators and politicians for decades as engineering schools around the world are increasingly dominated by Asian students.

Is it the more creative teaching methods used in Asia? Is it family work ethic, and academic achievement expectations from their cultures? Or is it that while (soapbox here) American parents are altogether too busy doting over their youth hockey players, the Asian parents are, instead, pandering to their academic superstars?

While none of these factors can be ignored, the answer is actually more simple than that. Indeed, it is much more simple than that. A huge fan of Malcom Gladwell (The Tipping Point and Blink), I recently read Outliers, The Story of Success. And what Gladwell argues is quite remarkable, if not startling.

Asian Math success, Gladwell contends, is in large part due to the more simplified constructs of the Asian numbering system. Asian students are better at math simply because their numbering system makes incomparably more sense than the English numbering system.

Multiple villains exist within the English language numbering system. For starters, no single digit (the ones) Chinese number has more than one syllable. Seven, in English however, has two syllables. This, of course, won't make any difference to an engineering student, but it does matter ... and it matters enormously ... to a 2 or 3 year old with their very 1st math lesson ... learning how to count to ten. All students, English or Chinese, can in fact only remember a certain number of syllables, typically between 6 and 10. The number Seven hurts English speaking students a bit because they have to hang onto that second syllable when remembering number sequences. Strike one.

Chinese students perform somewhat better than English students with their very 1st math lesson ... counting to 10.

From there, things go downhill.
The English speaking ankle biters next need to grapple with the irregularity of how eleven and twelve fit into the otherwise orderly teen numbers. Chinese toddlers, on the other hand, simply add ten plus the ones digit for all of those numbers. Eleven is phonetically just "ten and one" for the Chinese. Twelve is just "ten and two", and so on ... all the way to twenty.

Conversely, English numbers are (save the bastards 11 and 12) logically and phonetically constructed by appending something sounding like ten (teen), but not exactly ten behind the ones digit. Teen sounds something like like ten, but isn't exactly ten as it is in Chinese. Eighteen is "8 + something sounding like ten". Nineteen is "9 + something sounding like ten". Then there's 13 which is neither highly irregular like 11 and 12, nor somewhat regular like the rest of the teens (thir being used instead of three). And as if all of that weren't trouble enough, 11 and 17 are three syllable words. The Chinese need to know only 11 unique syllables to count to twenty, while English toddlers need to know 15.

As a result, the diapered Chinese find it much easier to complete math lesson #2 ... counting to twenty. And their counting advantage over the floor polishing English students widens even more. Strike 2.

Just like in a good horror flick, the problem doesn't end even there! For while Chinese simply go into numbering the twenties exactly as they numbered the teens ... adding two tens plus the ones digit, English babies encounter additional obstacles:
  1. we use something only sounding like two, but not exactly two to represent 20 (twen kinda like two); and, more significantly,
  2. We reverse the position of where the ones digit is placed. When we build the 20s we append the ones digit behind the sounding-something-like-two article ... in the reverse position of where we put it when we built (only most of) the teens!
21 is something-kinda-like "two tens + one". 22 is something-kinda-like "two tens + two". Counting to 30 at a younger age is strike three on the English, and most Minnesotans simply decide to start their kids skating instead of bothering with the forties. ;-)

Hence, by the time Chinese kids are potty trained, they are already a lot better at math than their English counterparts.
This early success creates a springboard for additional success. Being good at the 1st couple of math lessons, the Chinese kids take on more interesting problems and have early success with those too. The benefits of a simplified numbering system extrapolate, and the cycle continues. Chinese kids are initially better at math, then get a little better yet, and then get really, really good with math.

Math is intrinsically more approachable to Chinese toddlers. They like Math. It's easier for them. Significant attitude and effort (culture) is still required to excel, but hereunto is why they regularly clobber US kids in ACT and SAT math exams.

But hey, (soapbox again) maybe they can use this advantage to actually fix the FUBAR US & Global Financial markets math problem. Because apparently our esteemed business schools could use some help teaching students to count! Or maybe the Chinese will completely crush it with a new world order and currency? Stranger things have happened.

So just what the heck does this have to do with exercise and fitness Randy?

Well, since we suck so bad at counting, our trainers are going to get a lot better at it because we're going to have our clients do a lot more repetitions! ;-) And while that sparks at least a few good ideas for yet another April Fools Day spoof, the answer, in all seriousness, is actually easier and more basic than that.

For just as early math success provides fertile ground for additional mathematics interest and achievement, the same is true for fitness expectations. Early success with fitness efforts matter. And matters enormously. Early, initial success with making time to fit exercise into your life, and early initial success in getting the results you want defines exactly how successful you will ultimately be with your fitness lifestyle.

We occasionally acquire clients who want to get started just a couple days per week to see how things go. And just like the English toddler struggling through 11, 12, the teens and the twenties in an effort to count to thirty, a lot of well intended clients see early frustrations and stumble along the way with this approach.

It's really hard to see significant results training twice a weak. And without that positive reenforcement, your efforts can quickly drop to three times every two weeks (1.5 times per week). Dropping to once weekly, and twice monthly aren't huge steps from there ... and that's no way to achieve anything.

To be fair, exercising just a couple days per week can certainly be the right approach for seniors or for people without use of half of their body, or people maintaining their good health fitness levels. But it rarely produces the early tangible results needed to springboard you to safe, effective, permanent changes in your life ... like loosing weight, increasing your energy levels, reducing your blood pressure, sleeping better, or better sex.

The Chinese Math student Spring Fitness lesson then?
It's simple: You need to exercise most days of the week to make progress, particularly early in your fitness learning curve.

You need to know how to count to 30 as quickly as possible.

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