Solving our math problem

We often get to hear statements such as ‘Sorry, I’m really bad at math’, ‘Math period, oh no!’ and ‘I just can’t do math’. The idea that only some people can be good in Math, is at the root of the ‘math block’. In India, mastery in Math is still seen as a rare talent that must be found and nurtured rather than a skill that can be taught and facilitated.

Now, consider the following case, Osama is a highly enthusiastic student, studying in Class 5. He studies in a reputed private school very close to his house. He has a flair for writing and loves to write short stories. However, during his Math class, Osama doesn’t say a single word and sits at the back of the class with his head down pretending to have a stomach ache. He is terrified of Math and just waits for the period to get over as quickly as possible. The surprising part is that he was doing very well in Math till Class 3.

Sunitha is Osama’s teacher, who has been teaching at the school for over 15 years and has seen many children like Osama during her career. Sunitha has taken extra efforts to spend time with students who lag in Math and give them a lot more practice so that they could do better in their exams, and while this has yielded some results, most students, like Osama, continue to struggle in Math.

What is disheartening is that the story of Osama and Sunitha doesn’t exist in isolation; there is an Osama and a Sunitha in every school.

As per National Achievement Survey (NAS) conducted by the NCERT in 2017, the mathematics score nationally is 64% in Class 3, drops by 10 percentage points to 54% in Class 5, and then further down to 42% in Class 8. The Annual Statement of Education Report (ASER) 2018 also stated that more than 50% of the students in Class 5 cannot perform basic mathematical operations. Another astonishing metric came from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which is conducted to evaluate education systems worldwide. In the 2009 PISA test, India’s two participating states Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh were placed at the bottom among the 74 participating regions.

Understanding the problem

The traditional approach to the teaching and learning of Math in primary and secondary schools has been the “Observe-Learn-Practice” model. Typically, a math teacher focuses on one Math problem and details out the steps to solve it on the blackboard. Students are expected to observe and learn how to solve the problems. This is followed by numerous practice exercises to develop mathematical aptitude in solving different types of questions. The students are taught how to solve math concepts and related problems in a predefined way, when in reality, the problem might have different methods and procedures to solve them. The problem with this approach is that many students blindly follow the steps, and learn how to solve specific types of questions. When they are presented with a slightly different type of question or application-oriented questions, they struggle.

Clearly, the underlying issue is the lack of understanding of basic concepts. In most schools, the focus is on getting students to learn how to solve problems and score well in exams, rather than on ensuring that the students understand the concepts.

Math is a subject that can be taught by way of exploration rather than by rote. Most concepts can be conceptualised by the students themselves with a little guidance from the teacher. If the students were earlier told by their teachers that to form a triangle, it is required that the sum of its two sides is greater than the third (also known as inequality theorem), they would have just assumed that the teacher was right and memorised it as a set theorem.

When a well-structured Math teaching-learning programme is implemented in the school, the theorem is introduced with manipulatives or “concrete” hands-on tools first. With the help of well-researched activities that spark the inner curiosity of learners, students work in groups on the activities, model the problem, explore solution steps and outcomes and hypothesise before coming to a conclusion on the theorem. This is a very effective way of learning, especially for kinaesthetic and social learners. 

In addition, with today’s technology era, interactive software activities can further facilitate conceptual understanding. For example, some of the teaching-learning programmes have conceptualised hands-on and interactive software activities for all the basic math concepts. The teachers, too, can align their skills with the ongoing curriculum and get automated analytics which helps them understand where their students are getting stuck and why. In fact, further technology can be used to provide customised content for each student and also make practice more interesting through gamification.

(The writer is with Mathbuddy)

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