Saturday, March 24, 2007

Mathematics in Malaysia

It's been a long, long time since I last wrote a real post. You would think that I have been so busy that I don't go online at all; but the fact is, I have been littering my two cents here and there in blogs and forums. I am writing "real" posts all the time - only not in here.

In order to make up for my negligence, I decided to copy one of my ramblings over from others' blogs. This post is about mathematics, something that makes up such a large part of me yet is so rarely mentioned in My Little Moments. As you will see, I wrote quite a big chunk in koln's blog so it's a bit wasteful not to import it here. :P In the following, I modified the text a little bit to make it more coherent and reader-friendly.

Maths and meds are two words that sound so similar yet are drastically different. They are both related to me - one is in the past, one is in the present. As you know, I am doing medicine now. But interestingly, among my current friends, not many people know about my past at all.

Most Impressive Formula in the whole of Mathematics (by sheepoo)My involvement in maths is a matter of the past. There is no point bringing it up today because it isn't quite related to what I am currently doing. Maths belongs to the museum. Besides, my maths has already deteriorated so much after years of disuse, so there's a high risk of embarrassing myself by mentioning the word maths. Today, however, I would like to write about mathematics in Malaysia from the perspective of someone who's been through the whole system. I try to present the picture of Maths education in Malaysia, and bring in some insiders' info in the context of Olympiad competitions.

Since I will mention IMO quite a lot, maybe I should start by a brief introduction. IMO, which stands for International Mathematical Olympiad, is the biggest international mathematical competition for pre-university students. It's organized every year in different countries where contingents from various countries get together and tackle 6 tricky maths questions. For the past ten years or so, Malaysia has been sending a team of 3 - 6 students (that's the max for each country) to the annual competition. Throughout the years, we have struggled with not-so-proud results - out of the possible maximum of 42 marks, our candidates are generally scoring less than 10, and some of our representatives actually scored zeroes. Those who scored zeroes were by no means struggling in maths, mind you, but their performance serves as a grave reminder of how bad our country is faring in this prestigious competition. By doing some analysis, we shall see that Malaysia's poor performance in IMO points to a few inherent weakness in its education system.

First and foremost, there is this undeniable factor of terribly watered-down syllabus of maths in our country. Since the 70s, our education board has been cancelling topics, moving "hard" topics to form 6, and reducing the exam papers to a collection of fixed "question formats". Just grab a maths textbook from your dad and compare it with your current text, and get ready to be amazed by the vast gap between the levels of difficulty. You will begin to respect your dad for going through that ordeal.

But it's not just the syllabus, it's the whole learning culture in exams, especially in maths.. Yes, ask most high-scorers how to answer questions in SPM paper, they will tell you every single step. But the problem is, many people do not understand how to answer a maths question; they just know how to answer a question. By rote learning, by remembering the steps, by familiarising with the syntax and algorithm. People get 80s, 90s and 100 in SPM maths, but the score doesn't really mean that they are good at maths, or they understand maths. They just learnt how to do the few dozens of question formats.

Therefore we get really few ingenious students out of this culture... Let's just ask a question like, "between 3pm to 4pm, when will the hour hand and minute hand coincide"... This question can be solved using SPM maths alone, but it's a "hard question" because it's not "one of the question formats". Ask this question to form 3 students... I think most of them would not be able to solve this problem, despite having learnt algebra which is more than adequate in solving it. By the way this problem was one of the Olympiad bongsu category (form 1 & 2) questions a few years ago.

In China and some other countries, if you look at their maths book from primary schools, you will notice that this kind of "critical thinking" skills are inculcated, taught and tested from a young age. The clock question I asked above could be found in Primary maths text.

Apart from that, there is another major factor of our below-par performance in IMO - inadequate training. In our country, the IMO training is run by a few dedicated professors from UKM maths faculty who organize a few training camps every year. Those who do pretty well in the malaysian olympiad are chosen to those training camps, and in the camps the most outstanding students become the country representatives.

The thing is, the training camps are scattered, and to cover the whole gamut of olympiad type skills would require a more intensive training. I am not saying that the trainers are to be blamed, in fact they did the best they could and dedicated a lot of time and effort into this. However, without intensive trainings like those that we see in national swimmers, for example waking up every morning at 4.30am to swim, you won't get a good outcome like other countries. Yea we could say that the students themselves could be initiated to self-train everyday, but it's a pretty tight situation here.

In China and some other countries, they have special schools and also special intensive trainings where the future representatives study in. It's in that kind of setting where you could get ample training to tackle the olympiad type questions.

It is very inaccurate to say that "the best brain of Malaysia students are worse than the best brain of China". It doesn't work out that way. Shien Jin, one of our very own bronze medalists in IMO said that his colleagues in MIT aren't distinctly super-duper when it comes to intelligence. Of course they are very smart people, but they are not 3 to 4 times smarter than us, as their IMO scores might imply.

So one of the master keys is the training. And that's where we should aim at improving.

[... to be continued]
[Apr 30, 2008: Continued here]


Neptune Chye said...

I used to hear the same thing from Jun Hong, wondering why U all could tell the same thing! Staying together with him last time in Cemara, he really made me "mathraumatized"! People doing math are all very impressive, or "mathraumatizing"! Ha, that's how I describe math!:)Oh I still need to learn statistics in bored, calculus would be more fun indeed!:)

youngyew said...

Haha what do you mean by "could tell the same thing"? Not really lar, it's not exactly traumatizing.. I see it as personal preferences. It's like, while you find mathematics challenging and probably boring, I find it hard to appreciate arts as well... Perhaps it's what we say as "闻道有先后,术业有专攻" :)

Anonymous said...

cemara???intec student>