What makes Russian Mathematics special

I was contacted over the summer by Jaraslaw Anders from the US State Department with an interesting question: what differentiates the Russian approach to mathematics from the approach of America and other developed nations? A Russian mathematician had again won the Fields Medal (it’s like the nobel prize for mathematicians that Russians have been dominating since the late 1980′s) and Anders was interested in understanding what differentiated Russia’s approach to math education.

Unfortunately, the summer is a very busy time for RSM. We run our much anticipated summer camp and I work with our head teachers to extend our curriculum based on new international standards and our own experience in the school. I spoke several times with Anders over the summer, but didn’t see the final article until recently. I think the article does a great job of explaining what works in the Russian methodology.

Essentially I think there are 3 main differences to how Mathematics was taught by schools in Russia and how it’s taught in America:

  1. Math (really as a language of critical thinking) is not introduced early enough. The later you introduce it the less time you have to play with it and the more you’re going to rely on memorization of formulas over critical thinking.
  2. The math curriculum is not consistent from K through 12th grade across states, across schools with a state, or even across teachers in the same school.  In mathematics things are connected. Math builds on itself and simply can’t be taught in a year unless you have a solid foundation from the previous year.
  3. The math curriculum focuses on application before building out depth. To be apply to think critically about problems, you need to have a deep understanding of the fundamentals. That’s simply not possible if you’re racing from subject to subject and focusing on a few problems each time.

As Anders points out in his article, the impact of the above is enormous for math education in America and around the world:

Americans have long been concerned about their children’s performance in math, especially in comparison with students from other developed countries. In 2003 the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed 15-year-old Americans trailing far behind their colleagues from most other industrialized countries in standardized math tests. In 2006 the results were almost the same.

You can find the entire article on the State Department website:
http://www.america.gov/st/educ-english/2010/October/20101019101345zjsredna0.107052.html

EDIT: It was interesting to read that the National Science Foundation just awarded a $2 Million grant to study the Russian math curriculum.

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By: Irina Khavinson   Irina Khavinson

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