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Low marks, big ideas

Findings that students in countries with the lowest international maths scores are the most self-assured about their abilities have shown that instilling pupil confidence should not be the top priority for maths teachers, experts say.

Boosting self-esteem is no substitute for rigorous instruction, according to researchers at the Brookings Institution, US think-tank. They found that pupils in the highest-performing nations show the greatest insecurity.

The researchers compared pupil achievement at 13 with their own appraisal of their abilities, using data from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

It revealed that confidence ran highest in low-performing Jordan, Egypt and Ghana; it was lowest in high-flying Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. The study has sparked much soul-searching in America, which, despite being the world's wealthiest nation, came in ninth out of 46 in pupil achievement, while ranking among the world leaders in pupil confidence. The findings call into question America's infatuation with the happiness factor in education, the report said.

Professor William Schmidt, of Michigan State University, said the difference between confidence and achievement reflected variability in national curricula. He said: "The maths you are being asked to learn has a lot to with your perception of whether you're competent.

"Most 13-year-olds in the US are still doing foundational arithmetic, but in more demanding countries, kids are really being challenged."

Professor Schmidt said the study underscored the importance of international benchmarking. "The world is a global economy, no country can afford to only look internally," he said. l

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