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Singapore Math

Friday, March 5, 2010

Math is "Nowhere"


To the average math teacher with twenty years of experience (not uncommon with one year teaching experience repeated twenty times), mathematics is probably nowhere other than the four walls of the classroom or within the few hundred pages of the textbook – MATH IS NOWHERE! Not so for the professional mathematician working in the ivory tower, who makes a living out of mathematics – MATH IS NOW HERE!

Like philosophy, mathematics requires hardly any equipment other than pen and paper. You practically need no expensive instruments and laboratories to gain entry or to contribute to the growth of mathematics – except your brain. Indeed, mathematics’s start-up costs are as low as they come.

Suffering from Information Anxiety

Even in an age of easy access to the Internet, math teachers are flooded with an overload of quasi-useless information – the challenge is to filter the relevant and the useful from the mass of plagiarized content input by ego-centric Wikipedians.

In price- and pages-controlled textbooks by the Ministry of Education, Singapore, both publishers and writers have to focus on either context or concept – one can’t have both given a fixed number of pages and the unit price per page that the publisher must abide by. Publishing houses aren’t charitable organizations, nor are writers, volunteers in the business of mathematics education.

Even if the MOE were to relax the rules on the extent and pricing of local textbooks (as is the case in Hong Kong) where publishers and writers would then have the freedom to dictate the price and control the content, there is no guarantee that the new textbooks would be contexts-based. Scapegoating the MOE for numerous restrictions provides an easy way for publishers not to innovate their products, blaming time and price for not producing decent titles.

On the other hand, few would exonerate the MOE, because if they themselves couldn’t produce a decent textbook even with a team of a dozen full-time teachers and consultants, how could these mathematics specialists expect the private sector to better them with a fraction of their resources?

Conceptual Math vs. Contextual Math

For too long, MOE-approved textbooks authors see the teaching of notions and notations more important than revealing the beauty and utility of mathematical concepts. Formulas and worked examples and practice questions are the staple of a local textbook, paying lip service to the recreational or humanizing aspect of the subject. 

Putting mathematics in a context, although desired, is still an option for many authors who find that linking concepts to contexts is hard and time-consuming – you can’t always rely on Wikipedia or on-line free resources to contextualize or humanize your teaching.

What Are They for, Teachers?

Not that there is a dearth of relevant applications to traditional or common topics taught in school mathematics, the problem seems to be a reluctance or indifference or apathy on the parts of Singapore writers and editors to make the most disliked subject in school more interesting.

For example, we'd expect our local textbooks to mention these, but they’re inexistent:

Quadratic equations are depicted on a MacDonald’s logo.
The remainder theorem is applied to electrical circuits.
Matrices are used to store or retrieve large chunks of data.

As math educators (teachers, writers, editors, tutors, …) we haven’t done a good job in promoting mathematics as a discipline that permeates our everyday living – from gizmos to the internet to security to GPS to barcodes. Whether it is on-line booking and sms- or mms-ing, mathematics is everywhere; yet, many of us seem to be unaware or indifferent to how the applications of mathematics affect or inflict our lives.

Many years ago, at an NCTM conference in St. Louis, Missouri, I bought a T-shirt with the words, “MATH IS NOWHERE” printed on it. It reminded me of a booklet I read many moons ago asking the reader to read, “GOD IS NOWHERE”.

Like God, mathematics often seems to have little bearing on the lives of most people – both God and mathematics seem invisible to them. Be in math or religion, our attitude towards it determines whether it is nowhere or now here!


© Yan Kow Cheong, March 4, 2010