Maths, context and culture

I was reading this post by Dan Meyer on pseudocontext in maths problems.

If we invite pseudocontext in our classrooms without condition, it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between the real and the unreal.

Back when I was young, a lot of maths problems made little sense to me. In those days, the maths syllabus up to primary 6 (at 12 years old, or grade 6 if you’re in America) wasn’t particularly hard. At least to me. I’m not bragging, I’m just saying that the education system made things more difficult by introducing word problems. The epitome of conquering a maths exam paper was solving all the word problems at the end.

Word problems were created to introduce another element into elementary math (to make them difficult?). They added language. Suddenly it was something like:

John, Fred and Ken had $5 total. John bought 10 red marbles and Fred bought 12 blue marbles. If 1 red marble costs $0.10, and 1 blue marble costs $0.15, how many blue marbles can Ken buy if they still want to have $1 left?

Your command of the English language became a factor. But it was still ok, because the wording usually formed a pattern. It was marbles, people’s ages, number of apples or oranges in the basket, or some such. In a normal situation, if I really wanted to know your dad’s age, I’d just go ask him. I don’t really need to infer that your dad is 2.5 times your age, and then I figure the answer out (assuming I know your age).

Students here kill each other with A’s

Now if you don’t already know, it’s bloody competitive here in Singapore. Students are afraid of not doing well in school, of heads shaken by their friends, teachers, parents and relatives. Parents send their children to tuition classes (in addition to the normal school classes), regardless of their children’s grades. If the grades are bad, then improve them. If they’re great, great! Now perfect them. Go do your ten year series!

I went to tuition classes till I was 10 years old (primary 4 or 4th grade). I stopped because my dad couldn’t afford to pay for the classes. Being able to eat and pay the bills were more important. It’s a good thing I was disciplined enough to get good enough grades (and imbue enough motivation for all subjects, not just maths).

When I was in university, to supplement the cost of education, I looked into giving tuition. I was surprised that everyone from primary one to university level (?!) were asking for help. Let me just say, I make a lousy tuition teacher. I don’t really know the current syllabus well enough to help the students. Once, I brought up the subject of video games, using the position of battleships to illustrate … something. I can’t remember. I think it was x- and y-coordinate stuff. I was trying to interest the young boy I was teaching. It fell flat. I suck…

The Singapore Math Method

Which brings us to curriculum. It turns out that under the Singapore maths curriculum, Singapore students rank high for maths internationally. It’s so good that America has adopted the method. There’s even a name for it: Singapore Math Method. Let me tell you, I’m simultaneously amused and confused.

I’m even more surprised that Israel adopted the method in 2002, translating the textbooks to Hebrew. I was browsing in the bookstore reading Start-up Nation (Amazon link). It told a story of how Israel, being surrounded by hostile countries, had to innovate hard. Their brightest people are in the universities doing research and are also in the top military ranks. The book told a story of how the “flat” nature of their military translated to their way of doing businesses, in particular start-ups. My friend Christopher told me that per capita, Israelis were the richest in the world. It’s their culture that made them more inclined to creating wealth. I was also told about the Jewish mother syndrome… So I’m a little surprised that this group of people want to know about our (Singaporean) method of teaching maths.

I still believe in solving real world problems. I believe we’re not injecting enough curiosity into our students. That Singapore Math Method seems to have less force-feeding of concepts, and more of coaxing the student to question. The Singapore culture doesn’t seem to require curiosity for the students to do well (have I mentioned the parents are bloody competitive?). Hopefully, that’s changing.

This is going to be a cynical view, but I think most Singaporeans are striving for wealth, and wealth alone. Wealth translates to a better life. There’s nothing wrong with that. Singaporeans strive hard to attain wealth so they can forget about (seemingly) miserable lives. Ok, let me take that back. Apparently, Singapore is one of the happiest places in the world. There’s a “but” though…

Singapore ranks high on evaluated happiness, but not on experienced happiness

Alright, this is starting to depress even lil’ cheerful me…

So. Problems are formulated, and then given to our students to solve. But they have to learn how to formulate problems too, and that comes from asking questions, from being curious, from being disciplined and persistent. And that comes from cultural and societal influences, not from educational systems.