Indian kids are getting dumber at maths!

OK, that headline is a bit of a clickbait! They probably aren’t getting dumber, if anything it could be the opposite if the Flynn effect is really true. However, I specifically had the declining performance of Indian kids at the world’s foremost mathematics competition in mind, better known as the International Mathematics Olympiad or IMO, when I wrote that headline.

A bit of personal also-ran history is involved here as I did compete to join the Indian team at the turn of the millennium, but the competition was so fierce that I could not manage to get into the national-level top six that represent each country at the IMO. And that was just as well, as all the guys were clearly brighter and I did not deserve to be in that peer group. Nonetheless that teenage experience of competitive problem-solving (and failing to make the cut) informs my desire to keep a close watch on the Indian team’s performance at the IMO. I also occasionally try to solve IMO problems on boring London tube commutes, i.e. when I manage to get a damned seat, and share them with colleagues at work. Those interested can try them here.

The 2017 IMO recently concluded in late July, and the Indian team showed its worst performance this year since 1990 – the year it first started competing in this annual mathematical jousting event. Since this is brownpundits I tried to put the declining performance of Indians into context by comparing it, over the years, with our brown South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Throwing in Iran and United Kingdom as controls to add a bit of perspective. All the country-wise data can be accessed here.

Annual IMO Rank per country

The graphs are telling! India was up there with Iran and UK as its peers all through the 90s decade to the early 2000s. Indians were slightly worse-off than Iran, but by the turn of the millennium we were doing better. My own school-leaving cohort (and a couple of years around that) soundly beat both the Iranians and Brits. Yet 2005 marks a regime shift for the worse in average Indian performance at IMO and the data seem statistically significant.

I am at loss to explain this clearly worsening trend of performance by India’s brightest millennials. Did Indian parents really start begetting a dumber brood from the 90s onwards? I hope not! Good feeder schools and rigorous mathematical training play a big part in preparing high-school kids for such competitions and it is possible that some silly policy change (that I am unaware of) by the Indian government may have been a causal factor.

But there’s some hope in the same data for our Eastern cousins. Bangladeshi kids (and their mathematics training programme) seems to have shown phenomenal improvement(!) over the same period and now easily better India. India’s coincident decline does not help matters either. Bangladesh started competing at the IMO in the same year as Pakistan with similar laggardly results, but the subsequent improving trend in performance is clear as day. As for Pakistan, well, let’s just say that their national priorities leave a lot to be desired…

Author: Slapstik

I was born in Kashmir and a strange turn of events spanning over 2 decades led me to London, where I now live and work. I have a deep interest in linguistics, geo-political history, Science and philosophy of Science and occassionally my writings reflect that interest. I am an ardent Popperian, a technophile, a trekkie and a below average cook. Twitter: @kaeshour

4 thoughts on “Indian kids are getting dumber at maths!”

  1. I don’t have any satisfactory answer to contribute as my cursory efforts to find an answer have all failed, but in case anyone here cares:

    1. Some time last decade I remember hearing a rumor that a certain institute (which I won’t mention but I am sure you are familiar with) was coaching students to solve RMO/INMO problems; these could, at least in those days, be solved pretty algorithmically if you knew some standard facts such as very basic properties of integer congruences. As a result mediocre fellows from a certain city started getting in large numbers, pushing out genuine talent. However, I think this explanation is inadequate at best, since there have been many years by now since that city did not get adequate representation.

    2. Here are factors which ought to have worked in India’s favor but did not (and this is what makes it really mysterious to me):

    (a) The number of people taking these exams has drastically increased (I forget the number, but the change is by an order of magnitude), so much so that a pre-RMO has been contemplated; and
    (b) There have recently been people who tried to teach students equivalence classes of tricks – not just a list of problems and their solutions that you probably saw in your camp. Yet, this did not result in any improvement in the rankings.

    3. The awesome people who have been handling these camps for a long time have “retired”, but they continue to be involved since they are not getting enough enthusiasts to join them.

    4. Perhaps IITs etc. have become more competitive (probably 10 times as many people write the JEE now as compared to 20 years ago), and this contributes?

    5. From what I hear around, I doubt the quality of the best Indian math undergraduates is decreasing at all; perhaps it is improving. But the correlation between success in Olympiads and research level mathematics, though nontrivial (there are many fields medalists who are also IMO medalists), is not too strong. If I remember right, often Israel and Germany perform more poorly than India in the IMO, but they are much stronger in research level mathematics.

    1. Hey, great points!

      Yes, I know the coaching institute you have in mind and I think your explanation may have a lot of merit. Inflation/predictability in the RMO/INMO problems and simultaneous foray of coaching institutes can easily crowd out genuine mathematical talent.

      One would have thought that an order-of-magnitude increase in the number of kids at the RMO level would make the competition fiercer and result in better netting of talent (and performance). That it isn’t happening is counter-intuitive and my guess is that your point about problem predictability (which is really what coaching centres thrive on) may be the culprit.

      OTOH I am not sure of JEE somehow overshadowing olympiads. They are very different types of tests – at least were in my day and certainly not mutually exclusive. Point taken about Israel, which really is worse off overall than India in its record, but not Germany. Germany was comparable to India, but has been consistently better – esp. since 2005 when the Indian decline started.

      Problem-solving is a key part of mathematical (and scientific) training and a great way to enthuse kids about maths. Its utility should not be measured in Fields medals. I take your point about lack of strong correlation between IMO medalists and Fields medalists, and it isn’t the first time I’ve heard it being made. Yet it isn’t a fair comparison as many IMO medalists do not choose mathematics as their career, even among those that choose careers in academia. Choosing an academic career in a STEM field needs more than being good at maths and academia aren’t typically known for being a good source of income 🙂

      1. Thanks for correcting me on Germany; looks like I had a false memory. But of course, the difference in quality of mathematical research between the two countries far exceeds the IMO level difference.

  2. I studies Maths at IIT in 90’s. Did some research at HarishChandra Research Institute. I keep in touch with my Maths teachers whenever I visit my Institute for campus placement, seminars. I have a bunch my classmates as professors in IITs and ISI. Our favourite topic is declining maths performance in general. Or we could be acting like old curmudgeons :).

    1. The general Maths aptitude among 10+2 students in IITs has gone down, multiple IIT profs have told me. In fact one oldie prof even put down the year 1994 as the peak.

    2. IIT coaching impact. Coaching has gotten better. This is major source of resentment among the older profs. The students are so well trained to crack the JEE exam, that it is very tough to check natural aptitude in a 2 hour exam.

    3. We had JEE toppers like Rajesh Gopakumar, Maninder Agarwal doing pure maths after graduation, Now we don’t see that. The last JEE topper doing pure maths would be Abhinav Kumar.

    4. Preparing for maths olympiad is tough. Earlier preparing for JEE and olympiad had a lot of overlap, the people joining the olympiad team would be automatic top 10 ranker in JEE. But now its easier for students to focus on exclusive JEE training without bothering about olympiad.

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