Less happy, more math

Happiness isn’t everything when it comes to math achievement, concludes a Brookings study. AP reports:

The nations with the best scores have the least happy, least confident math students, says a study by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

Countries reporting higher levels of enjoyment and confidence among math students don’t do as well in the subject, the study suggests. The results for the United States hover around the middle of the pack, both in terms of enjoyment and in test scores.

Study author Tom Loveless says, “We might want to focus on the math that kids are learning and just be a little less obsessed with the fact that they have to enjoy every minute of it.”

In high-performing countries, students lack confidence in their abilities because they’re working to meet higher expectations than in low-performing countries. However, the best students in each country are more confident than the weaker students.

The study also knocked efforts to make math “relevant,” AP reports. “Nations that try to teach math in terms of daily life have the lowest test scores.”

Loveless analyzed the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a test of fourth-graders and eighth-graders.

The eighth-grade results reflected a common pattern: The 10 nations whose students enjoyed math the most all scored below average. The bottom 10 nations on the enjoyment scale all excelled.

Japan, Hong Kong and the Netherlands were among those with high scores and lower enjoyment or confidence among students.

Update: Five out of four U.S. teachers say the study is wrong, reports Scrappleface.

In a sort-of-related post on EdWize, Leo Casey takes on anti-homework guru Alfie Kohn (who knocks the math esteem study in this Washington Post story) and argues that students won’t learn if school is all play and no work.

. . . Kohn’s polarized dualism of creative, imaginative, self-directed play, on the one side, and alienated, oppressive and thoughtless work, on the other side, excludes the middle term which is the actual ground of education – meaningful, purposeful intellectual labor.

Via The Quick and the Ed.

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  1. However, if I understand Jay Mathews’ column in the Washington Post today, within each country, the kids who are happiest with math are also the ones who score higher.

  2. edgeworthy says:

    How far are these results from the American studies in which kids were asked how low your grades go before you get into trouble at home? The most demanding were the Asian-Am families followed by whites then hispanics and blacks. Higher family/cultural standards = higher performance.

  3. I wonder how much of this relates to the findings of a few years ago that many people do not have realistic views of their abilities in various areas. The results suggested that people who are “highly competent” tend to downgrade their own abilities – be dissatisfied with what they can do – whereas people who aren’t “all that” sometimes have very high opinions of themselves.

    And totally yes on Casey’s comment: “meaningful, purposeful intellectual labor.” That is actually what makes ME happiest – working on something that’s challenging but that I can (usually) achieve with hard work. Much more fulfilling in the long run than a life of play.

    I wish we could get past the idea of “play” vs. “work” where one is “fun” and the other is “boring.” Work can be enjoyable and fulfilling if it’s done right and approached with the right attitude.

  4. It’s true that hard work is more fulfilling in the long run, but doing anything really difficult brings with it the possibility of failure. Maybe people are too eager to protect their kids (and themselves) from that unpleasantness. I try to teach my kids that the satisfaction of accomplishing something that initially feels impossible is far greater than painful effort that it takes, and worth the possibility of ultimately failing. My impression is that this is not universally popular parenting technique.

  5. Robert Wright says:

    Thank you for the link to Scrappleface! How wonderful.

    I think you also steered me to Oragami Boulder, too.

    And We Love Black People.


    Scrappleface is great!

  6. From Scrappleface:

    The NEA spokesman said the comparatively-low standardized test scores of American children “simply prove that test designers don’t know how to measure what really counts.”

    It’s dispiriting when satire and the target of the satire are indistinguishable.