I now know why Indians are better at math than Americans

Ok, no shocker here. Generally speaking, Indians test better than Americans in Math.

In America, we are told it is because of the rote math lessons that the educational system favors here in India. This sounds convincing enough, and manages to make the American Education system sound progressive. Rote methods are inferior, we are told. So, if India favors rote methods - and America favors highly engaging teaching lessons, we can explain our poor math scores away as a necessary evil of our superior educational system, right?

Well, after my experience last week, I'm convinced, that this "rote" system produces a love of math, or at least - produces curiosity about it. This is something that is clearly lacking in the states, despite our "progressive" teaching style. Let me explain.

I've been studying for the GMAT. Sally has to pass a language test for INSEAD next year, and so I decided to join her and study for the GMAT. The scores are good for 5 years after all - so why not?

Last week, I had a business trip which brought me to Chennai. Since I knew this would provide a few hours in the plane & a slow evening in a hotel, I brought my study materials along. I've been using the Kaplan 800 Review book, and pulled it out in the Chennai airport on my way back to Delhi.

The gentleman sitting next to me couldn't help but stare over my shoulder at the materials as I . I found this a little odd, but thought nothing of it, until he asked to see the book. Mind you, this man was well beyond 50, and here he was reviewing my test prep materials & asking me where I purchased them.

About an hour later, I realized the man across the aisle was following along in my book. Sure enough, after I solved a particularly tough problem, he asked to borrow my book so he could try the question himself. I obliged, and for 10 minutes, the man scribbled notes and slowly solved the data sufficiency problem.

Shortly after touching down in Delhi, yet another Airline passenger, asked to review my book. He took it, and spent 5 minutes carefully scanning the pages of the book.

Now at this point, I was truly baffled. I can think of no circumstance in the states, short of a GMAT prep course, where I could find so many people interested in Math. Am I the only one who has experienced such a strange reaction?


D Chaudhury said...

^_^ It is not the learning system. It is an inherent interest. Math is something like Su-Doku for most Indians. A challenge to be solved, a passtime, something that can be done mentally (mostly) and then posed as a question.
Its like Quizzing. Most Indians LOVE participating in quiz shows, and also in solving difficult questions.
Plus, GMAT is considered fairly standard questions by most.
Unfortunately, I never understood this curiosity.

boston123 said...

Oh yeah, it is something that people love to tax their brains with. My 82 year old Dad still does his Sudoku's daily, and was thrilled to receive a nice set of Sudoku and other puzzles for his last birthday.
I managed to pick up crossword puzzles after moving to the United States, about 28 years ago. However crosswords require some context/ culture related awareness, which is not required of Math. Besides most math puzzles admit of 1 correct solution( no ambiguity here).

I have had mixed experience with my sons though.. one of them loves Math, the other hates it! Both went to good public schools in the US, and were sufficiently chalenged in AP courses etc. The GMAT computational math levels are simple, and can work off of rote memorization; but the problems requiring some thinking, set up, and deductions( basically large word problems)are as difficult to Indians as to Americans.

Obelix said...


People are in general, curious about Math. My uncle, till his last days (80+) was constantly learning new things in math. He graduated way back in the 1940s and missed out stuff like Partial Differential Equations, he caught up with most of that post retirement from my engineering school books. I've seen that with a lot of my elderly relatives who have no need to be mucking with math in their retirement. Still continues to amaze me.

ŠĦÅŠĦWÃT said...

Welcome to India. This is where Math began.

Algebra, Trigonometry and Calculus are studies, which originated in India. The 'Place Value System' and the 'Decimal System' were developed in India in 100 B.C.

G said...

You may have heard of this: A lot of indians who belong to the traditional business community - nomad businessmen in the ancient and medieval times and have descended from the same are considered to be experts at math.

Eg: A Baniya (belonging to the community Baniya) compared to a punjabi, gujarati etc would be exceptional at math at every level and would do really well in careers related to math - accountants/taxmen/etc.

Its something our grandparents often say - dont know if its scientific or true or not - but its what we've heard - a lot.

Kris said...

Good answer. Infact a wise elderly American once told me that we are good in IT and Math as we are after all the land of Ramanujam and our early civilisations were so advanced when in Europe they were still inventing the wheel. It is in our genes...

Prakash said...

Maths and Science is in our genes, it has nothing to do with education system or pushing by our Parents

Anonymous said...

If you live in India you know that the slightest complements to anything Indian results in many Indians subscribing to delusions of grandeur, Math is more that computation and formulas, which is what the schools teach. They never teach the why's which is what university level mathematics is all about. Where are we in the Math Olympiad? Where are our Field's medal winners? Where are our innovative new technologies.L

A western man compliments India and we completely forget about our deep, endemic problems and start thumping our chests.

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YourHusband said...

Asians in US are smarter than indians and better than them at math though. They're also superior in math compared to all other western countries

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