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Learning to think beyond multiple-choice questions

Update: May, 20/2015 - 08:58

by Thu Huong Le

During my years studying abroad in undergrad and my year at American high school, I was automatically considered good at math - the overused Asian stereotype.

I did find math easier in the American high school, which is probably equivalent to the math taught in seventh and eighth grade in Viet Nam. My math scores were generally higher than my fellow American students, but back in Viet Nam I was nowhere near the top. I was mediocre.

Looking at the math exercises of my nephew, who is in fourth grade in Viet Nam, I'm amazed at their level of difficulty. There were questions that require students to multiply, divide and subtract thousands without a calculator. There were also difficult questions on fractions and graph questions to solve for variables.

In Vietnamese schools, math and literature are considered the two most important subjects. The talented math students tend to be more respected than those who are good at the social sciences. The extremely talented math students compete in competitions across the country.

So the rigorous math curriculum that frightens students like me, who are more interested in social sciences and language studies, is not making it easier for my nephew.

A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranking of math and science scores of students in 76 countries and territories put Viet Nam in the top 12, above Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and even the US, which ranked 28th. Asian countries took the top five spots.

The rankings seem to support the idea that Asian students are generally better at math and science. But they also stirred up a debate about their relevance in our education system.

Are our students better at math than those in the US and Australia? Does this reflect the overall quality of math education in our schools?

Why can't we turn the students who are good at math into scientists who can generate economic growth? Why do Vietnamese students, many of whom win high prizes at international math competitions, tend to choose top US universities to further their studies and research?

In an article for Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, Giap Van Duong, a renowned educator in Viet Nam and the founder of GiapSchool – a website that offers free training courses – wrote that the Vietnamese education system mostly focused on preparing students for exams.

According to Duong, students must grapple with a series of competitive exams from first grade to 12th grade to universities. The tradition of learning to pass exams is rooted in Confucianism.

Educators and experts have also pointed out that the rankings mean very little because they only measure 15-year-olds' math and science scores. They can master test-taking skills without necessarily proving that they are more intellectually capable than their fellows in other countries.

Hoang Thai Anh, who teaches 11th and 12th grade math at a high school in Ha Noi's Me Linh District, said the rankings only meant that teachers were preparing students well for their exams.

Despite efforts to trim down the intensity of the math curriculum in 11th and 12th grade, she said students and teachers were still overloaded and students were often at loss in applying their knowledge to solve real-world problems.

"They often ask me: we study this or that for what, if not exams?" Anh said.

Professor Lam Quang Thiep, former director of the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET)'s Higher Education Department, said Vietnamese students generally scored competitively on the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA tests) – even higher than those from developed countries.

"This shows that Vietnamese students are generally hardworking and academically competent, but it doesn't mean the whole system is competitive," Thiep said.

A math teacher who has trained Vietnamese students to compete in international Mathematical Olympiad competitions said the ranking was just a point of reference.

He said that if Vietnamese students were ranked in the top five in terms of medals received at Olympiad competitions, it didn't necessarily mean "our math system is fifth in the world," even though "we should be proud of these achievements".

He noted that reforms were being made to gradually allow Vietnamese students to gain more insights into applied mathematics and realise that Math is a highly applicable and interesting subject.

Meanwhile, Dao Tuan Dat, headmaster of Einstein High School in Ha Noi, told the online newspaper Vnexpress that countries who rank behind Viet Nam do not train students at the same level of intensity. Some schools in Viet Nam require students to spend as much as 18 hours per day for test preparation.

Personally, I admire the talented math students, but I would prefer that my nephew enjoyed solving math problems instead of just doing it for the exam. I want him to learn how to think, instead of how to follow.

This is not to suggest that exams aren't important. But speaking for those who are not so talented at math, I just wish we could let kids learn through play. We want to help them think math is fun, and not just about exams. If students find it fun, they will be more likely to perform well on exams.

Even Jack Ma, founder of China's Alibaba, told his son that "you don't need to be in the top three in your class, being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren't too bad. Only this kind of person [a middle-of-the-road student] has enough free time to learn other skills."

I believe the system should give students the drive to pursue their passions and the skills to work, instead of just test-taking skills.

We also need to produce those middle-of-the-road students, because they might become future thinkers and entrepreneurs – people who can push Viet Nam forward. — VNS

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