I Learned Math In Iran And My Students Were Better For It

As a child growing up, it was a much emphasized and well-established fact that education was important. This belief was born out by my parents’ efforts to provide my siblings and me with many diverse experiences. Various opportunities drove my parents to settle our family in the Middle East for several years. There, I spent my earliest formative years, immersed in an environment in which values, wisdoms and learning disciplines had been molded and ripened by time from antiquity.

Whether we were at home in the United States or abroad, attending public or private schools, learning through correspondence courses or tutors, education remained an unwavering priority. In spite of language barriers and other challenges, math – the most intriguing constant in my unorthodox academic pursuits – became my favorite subject. Thus, I came to understand why mathematics is considered earth’s “Universal Language”.

As a young woman, I returned home to the United States after having spent some twelve years abroad. I found myself full of sincere enthusiasm and armed with the conviction that knowledge -particularly math- connects strangers, opens doors, and empowers people. I took the opportunity to volunteer as a math tutor for middle-school students in my local public school, GED students, and the Public Library’s Homework Help Hour.

I felt such a connection to the students through math and was surprised at how different explanations of the same material improved their understanding of the subject. Much of my success in explaining difficult to grasp topics to my students came from mimicking Middle Eastern teaching styles.

For example, some fourth-grade students came to prefer the alternative method of long division to the standard way proposed by most Western textbooks. And many of my students loved the single strategy I shared with them to solve multiple algebraic equations as opposed to learning multiple strategies for each different type of equation. 

I observed children learning and had the pleasure of building their confidence along with their knowledge base and strengthening their study/learning skills through techniques which I had learned abroad. The sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that this experience brought me led me to my career choice as a math educator.

I had a goal to marry techniques and methods of math education from my past in the Middle East with the cutting-edge research of today. The field of math education continues to intrigue me and my desire grows to answer pressing questions regarding ways to improve math education for students in the US in general, as well as for my own children specifically who are being educated here.

My experience as a student in the Iranian education system and my formal training as a student of a research-based institution of higher learning here in the United States, coupled with 15 years  of teaching experience, has led me to a few reflections that highlight what I consider to be contributions to the success of several Middle Eastern countries’ math programs.

I will concentrate my opinions on what I experienced firsthand and comparative education research I have conducted in college.

What are some key differences in the approach to math education of the East and West? What can we learn from our Middle Eastern counterparts to raise math education standards and subsequently our competitive edge?

1)    Open-Ended Responses vs. Multiple Choice Questions

One of the biggest differences I have experienced in my US textbooks and classrooms was what I call, “ over-reliance on multiple-choice questions in the teaching process”. After years of teaching in the charter school system, I understood this tactic to have developed out of the need to give children exposure and practice for high-stakes tests such as mandated state testing and ACT/SAT college prep, etc. However, I find this practice is the single biggest difference in the two worlds. In my entire experience in schools in Iran, I can literally count on one hand how many multiple-choice math problems I encountered in tests and textbooks.

In Iran, open-ended questions with expectations of thorough justifications were the norm. An analysis of an 8th grade Iranian textbook with that of an 8th grade US textbook would illustrate this point quite clearly. In preparation for this reflection, I solicited a current Iranian 8th grade textbook. After reviewing over half of the 152-page document, I still did not encounter a multiple choice question. In contrast I reviewed five curriculums that I taught over the last 15 years and encountered multiple choice questions within the first 10 pages of each of them. Three of the five were 8th grade texts.

When I returned home, I was able to whiz though all my math tests and placement exams. I used to chuckle at the fact that the answers were just sitting there on the paper, and I felt like I was cheating. Another fact is that the content and level of rigor in the Iranian texts is different (which is a topic unto itself). The way one is expected to interact with the problems, delve into the math and explain his/her work is an everyday occurrence. 

I do not want to be misunderstood: Are multiple-choice questions bad? No. On the contrary, they can play an effective role in the efficient assessment of skills for teachers, but I assert that their benefit is more for the teacher and the system than for the student’s depth of knowledge. There is much to be said about requiring a student to draw upon his/her skills to decipher the best strategy that will lead him/her from the beginning, to the middle, and to the end of a problem. 

2)    High Emphasis on Skill Mastery Not Mere Familiarity 

In Iranian education, like many Middle Eastern countries, math facts are considered basic skills. A student will not progress from one level to the next with a mere mediocre understanding of arithmetic. Students are expected to know addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts like they know the alphabet. There is an expectation of “mastery” of these skills that is not negotiable. Familiarity will not suffice.

Unlimited time to draw sticks and calculate 9×9 is not acceptable. I have always been baffled by the fact that people are so tolerant of students not knowing addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division facts in a way that they would not be if the same child couldn’t tell them what letter came after “c” in the alphabet.

Familiarity is considered acceptable in math in a way that it is not acceptable in other disciplines.

Literacy instructors would unanimously concede a student who didn’t know his 26 letters sounds and 44 phonemes is bound to struggle in reading and requires intense intervention. For such a child, mastering parts of speech and essay writing would likely be paused as the more important elementrary building block was solidified. However, a child who only knows his/her 2 and 10 multiplication facts is considered ok because he/she “gets the concept and could figure out 8×7 if given the time or a calculator”.  

In Iran, the goal of the early elementary years is to obtain mastery in every sense of the word. I think it is worth mentioning that there is universal buy-in from the Iranian students, parents, and teachers for this approach, as calculators are not considered acceptable aids for math classrooms and tests.

Speed and accuracy in basic arithmetic is considered a fundamental building block. This foundation is deemed required for the middle/high school years. The belief is that students who are not weighed down with trying to compute basic arithmetic, are best suited to understand higher concepts. 

Consequently, you will find the equivalent of 10th-grade US algebra and geometry taught in Iran’s 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade classrooms, leaving high school to tackle trigonometry & calculus. When the brain is bogged down with trying to recognize patterns of multiplication in an algebra problem, it is difficult not to get lost in the algebra. I can understand the opposition that many educators may have to this tactic, but I think all educators can agree that the stronger the foundational skills, the better a student is prepared to build upon that foundation and embrace new learning, especially those, who like myself, have to spend the first months of the school year reteaching previous skills.

3)    Culture & Growth Mindset 

The last point I hope to highlight is less tangible than the former two and by far the most difficult to pinpoint, but I dare say it is the most important. A student’s mindset towards problem-solving has a profound effect on his/her math skills. Having spent 12 years abroad followed by 15 in US classrooms, I couldn’t help but notice many of my students had negative attitudes towards math.

 They would comment that they were not good at math, and in fact, no one in their family was good at math, as a statement of fact and an irreversible truth. In contrast, in Iran if my classmate or friend failed a math test or did poorly on an assignment there was no shrugging of the shoulders and acceptance of the poor grade, but rather an admission that the individual had to study harder, longer and put more time into the subject as to not repeat the dismal performance.

I entered my math career with this understanding that no matter what, if you built your foundation, studied more, and reviewed where you went wrong, you would do amazingly in math. I found this to be true in my own experience and was eager to teach my students how practice would improve their performance.

I would teach my students to focus on study skills, and practice problems with them to build their self-confidence.  I wanted to show them that you can do anything if you try hard enough is more than a mantra – it is reality. However, I noticed that even if my students bought into this for a period of time and saw that the strategies I taught them led to success on a subsequent exam or homework assignment, they didn’t think it was sustainable or perhaps just required too much effort to keep up.

I had trouble convincing my students that if they channeled half the effort they put in the basketball court mastering that jump shot, or in video games getting to the next level, or learning the newest dances released from pop culture stars, they would consistently see their skill level and love for math increase exponentially. 

Recognizing the cultural difference was a sobering realization in my understanding of math education. I shifted my focus to showing the importance of math in the world, sharing data with students to illustrate how practice directly translates to various forms of success on tests and assignments, and discussed growth mindset research with children, and more importantly with families.

For some educators, particularly those who struggle with both positive mindsets about their own math content skills, shifting a culture may appear to be an insurmountable task, but I firmly believe that the educator who realizes this is a key lever in math success, it will prove a worthwhile endeavor for our students.

Iran graduates the 3rd largest number of engineers annually according to the 2022 research from Debasmita Chatterjee (see chart below).  This is a remarkable feat considering this ranking sits Iran only roughly four thousand individuals behind the US. What makes this even more noteworthy is that the US is a first-world country with a population four times that of Iran.

Another interesting statistic is that a vast majority of the Iranian that immigrate to other countries occupy the STEM fields. These statistics alone should cause math enthusiasts to pause and ponder. Even if we adjust for many factors, it must be noted that the foundation of math education in Iran and similar Asian countries has afforded its students with a command of the basics and problem-solving methodologies that allow them to be well suited for STEM careers and competitive on the world stage. 

Russian Federation                            454,436      
United States                                   237,826      
Iran                                                  233,695      
Japan                                               168,214       
South Korea                                      147,858


    • Agreed! Families, schools, and concerned individuals can support black and brown children and help position them to take advantage of math careers down the line by ensuring they have a rock solid foundation. Developing true mathematical competency in our youth will help them to not shy away from STEM opportuties.


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