India has made significant contributions in the evolution of mathematics. Aryabhatta, Brhamagupta and Bhaskara II are some of the famous mathematicians from ancient India. Concept of zero and the decimal system came from India.
Significant work was done in the field of algebra and trigonometry. There is Vedic Math which teaches various computation techniques through sutras(rules).
The growth and development by the mathematicians would have trickled through to the general population, making them interested and adept in computations.
Another factor is the Indian socio-economic circumstances. Historically, engineers and doctors were the only professionals who had a prospect of lucrative jobs. Number of seats in colleges for these two streams was limited.
In order to get admitted to engineering or medical school, a student has to pass very difficult entrance exam with stress on math and science subjects. Only the best of the best can get admission to a reputable college or university. This led parents, students, teachers and the school system to focus on doing well in math and science.
Rigor of Math
Kids learn multiplication from early childhood. Every evening, you recite multiplication tables. This practice makes kids good at mental math. As they grow older, they start learning math rules and formula. Indian methodology is based on learning and practicing. Kids are made to solve many problems in each of the mathematical concepts so that it becomes second nature to solve the problems.
Unlike the US system, Indian education system does not put much importance on creative thinking and deep understanding of the subject. There are pros and cons of this approach. Pro is that there is less fear of math – You get mechanised about computations and problem solving. Being good and quick on basic math makes it easy to learn higher concepts.
The disadvantage is the lack of innovation and creativity. But in a country with a population of over a billion and not enough educational or job opportunities, being good in giving a test is essential for the short-term goal of getting into the race.
Computer Industry Boom
This knack towards math and science and the knowledge of English language became great assets when the computer and software industry blossomed. The US had need of tons of software engineers. India had its potential base ready.
Young graduates grabbed this opportunity and took classes in learning programming languages, databases and other technologies. Being good at math generally leads to being good in programming and analytical thinking. People who did not get into engineering colleges and did graduation in math or physics also started doing diplomas and masters in computer applications.
Year after year there are hundreds of thousands of Indians who come to the US, get jobs in IT industry and make the US their home. When they have family and kids, they apply the Indian method to their kids who go to the US schools.
Children of Indian origin living in the US excel in math and science. This trend applies to kids from other Asian countries as well.
Math in the US
In my opinion, the US math books are very well-written and illustrated. They explain the concept, history and application of a particular topic. This gives a kid well-rounded education rather than learning the formula.
However, the trouble is the lack of rigor. Be it physical fitness or mental fitness, a strong discipline, regular drill and successive goals for improvement and achievement are needed. Mathematics inherently needs practice. When you solve a math problem, it is either right or wrong – there are no grades like average or fair.
In order to solve a problem correctly and quickly, one needs rigorous workout. If the teachers do not instill this discipline, students get more incorrect answers than correct. They get into the vicious circle of ‘I am not good at math-I hate math-Why do we need math’ and so on.
If the teachers can guide the students towards a regular math work programme, the circle can be reversed. They start solving problems, get excited about it and develop an interest in the subject. It will build math confidence and the fear will be gone. After all, school math is no rocket science! If students in India can be good at math, students in other countries can be good as well.
(Bina Mehta is a PMP certified business systems analyst. She is a contributor on Book Review programme for PMI Silicon Valley Chapter. Her interests include reading, writing, speaking and problem solving. She is a competent communicator with Toastmasters International.)