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The Asian Tigers Are the Smartest

Every four years, educators and policymakers around the world await the results of the international comparative assessments of student achievements in mathematics and sciences, published by Boston College and Time Magazine, to find out which nation is considered the world’s smartest one. It is unsurprising that, as was the case in previous years, we see the Asian Tigers surpass everyone else in these rankings — leaving behind Europe and America. At the top of this list is Singapore, which has become the world’s exemplar for a creative educational system, followed by Hong Kong, Korea, China and Japan. Notably, these are also the countries that have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic in the most effective way, suggesting that there is a direct link between math and science skills and the ability to solve complex problems. This year, 62 countries and 600,000 students participated in the assessment, designed for fourth- and eighth-grade students. The results came as a shock to some, including the French, who came out at the bottom of the European ranking. Still, some other countries were pleased, including Gulf states (and Jordan), which advances slightly from last year. However, all Arab countries are still found at the very bottom of the ranking and will need to invest immense resources in order to rise to the top ranks. It should be noted that this year, Russia ranked directly after Japan, penetrating the top tier of states for the first time. Britain also was able to improve its ranking, after it revamped its mathematics curriculum and sent teachers and leading pedagogical experts to Shanghai to observe the Chinese model. It subsequently jumped from 26th place in the world to ninth place in record time. As for America, which realized early on the weakness of its students and their failure to keep pace with its economic status and its position as a financial capital of the world, some of its institutions have turned to Singapore to mimic the system that mixes theoretical mathematics with practical applications. Like Britain, America has made progress, but remains behind, ranking 14th in mathematics. Granted, these tests are not free of error, and their results must always be taken with a grain of salt. However, states should use these metrics to welcome feedback, analyze it, identify shortcomings and devise plans for improvement. As for the Arab world, the problem seems to be a complete separation of abstract mathematical concepts from their real-world applications. When terms taught in class are detached from the context in which they unfold in the real world, they become boring and dull. People with a mind trained in logic at a young age can use the skills and tools they develop in later years to solve problems completely unrelated to math. We, therefore, have no choice but to reinvent our model. We tried a different approach and it failed. This is the only way to put our younger generations on a path to success in an increasingly competitive world. –Sawsan Al-Abtah (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)