Teaching mathematics: Time for a ceasefire; Technology and fresh ideas are replacing classroom drill-and helping pupils to learn

Teaching mathematics: Time for a ceasefire; Technology and fresh ideas are replacing classroom drill—and helping pupils to learn

Feb 1st 2014 | SHANGHAI AND TEL AVIV | From the print edition

IF THE world’s education systems have a common focus, it is to turn out school-leavers who are proficient in mathematics. Governments are impressed by evidence from the World Bank and others that better maths results raises GDP and incomes. That, together with the soul-searching provoked by the cross-country PISA comparisons of 15-year-olds’ mathematical attainment produced by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, is prompting educators in many places to look afresh at what maths to teach, and how to teach it.


Those countries languishing in the league tables fret about how to catch up without turning students off the subject with boring drill. Top performers, most of them Asian (see chart), fear that their focus on technical proficiency does not translate into an enthusiasm for maths after leaving school. And everyone worries about how to prepare pupils for a jobs market that will reward creative thinking ever more highly.

Maths education has been a battlefield before: the American “math wars” of the 1980s pitted traditionalists, who emphasised fluency in pen-and-paper calculations, against reformers led by the country’s biggest teaching lobby, who put real-world problem-solving, often with the help of calculators, at the centre of the curriculum. A backlash followed as parents and academics worried that the “new math” left pupils ill-prepared for university courses in mathematics and the sciences. But as many countries have since found, training pupils to ace exams is not the same as equipping them to use their hard-won knowledge in work and life.

Today’s reformers think new technology renders this old argument redundant. They include Conrad Wolfram, who worked on Mathematica, a program which allows users to solve equations, visualise mathematical functions and much more. He argues that computers make rote procedures, such as long division, obsolete. “If it is high-level problem-solving and critical thinking we’re after, there’s not much in evidence in a lot of curriculums,” he says.

Estonia’s government has commissioned Mr Wolfram’s consultancy in Oxfordshire to modernise maths courses for secondary-school pupils. Starting this month, it will pilot lessons built around open-ended problems which have no single solution. One example: “What’s the best algorithm for picking a romantic date?” (Possible answer: go on more dates with a lower quality threshold to maximise the chance of success.) Another: “Am I drunk?”, which leads into quantitative analysis involving body masses, rates of alcohol absorption and other variables.

Some PISA stars are also seeking a new approach. Singapore’s government commissioned David Hogan, an Australian maths educator, to assess its syllabus. It wants pupils to be able to explain what they know to their classmates, and to apply it in unfamiliar situations.

Israel is also experimenting, aware of the imminent end of the windfall provided by the arrival of many mathematicians from the former Soviet Union. Some Israeli maths lessons from primary school onwards will soon be taught using inexpensive tablets, an approach inspired by Shimon Schocken. An academic at Herzliya University, from 2005 he has created a large online group of “self-learners” who build computers and programs from scratch. Pupils are encouraged to visualise their calculations, not just to get the right answers. (Your correspondent, raised on algebra worksheets, found an iPad exercise that involved grouping sheep in holding pens embarrassingly hard.)

Andreas Schleicher, the statistician in charge of the PISA studies, agrees that many of the algorithms—rote procedures for solving familiar problems—that children have traditionally spent years mastering are now easy to “digitise, automate and outsource”. But he cautions against concluding that they are therefore no longer worth teaching. A third of pupils tested in Shanghai, which tops the PISA maths tables—and where pupils drill in mental arithmetic, start algebra young and learn formulae by heart—can apply their knowledge to novel and difficult problems, compared with 2-3% in America and Europe.

Youngsters, in China and elsewhere, need to have the grounding to assess whether a computer-generated answer is close to right before they start to rely on whizzy technology. Then they can happily abandon the drill in long division and quadratic equations. For the majority of maths moderates, the good news is that both sides in the fruitless trench warfare between progressives and traditionalists look ready for a ceasefire.



About bambooinnovator
KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (, a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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