How Not To Teach Math

There are math teachers who like to teach only one method of solving problems and who will mark students wrong if they use another method but arrive at the correct answer anyway. This is all the more unfortunate if these are elementary or high school teachers, because they are giving kids very wrong foundational ideas about math.

Math is already a complicated and stressful subject for most kids. The least any teacher can do is to aid them in understanding it in any way they can, instead of insisting on their way as the only way. (I am, of course, referring to the subject as traditionally taught in schools. Those of you who have been following my recent articles would be aware that I am advocating a wholly different method of education altogether — but that is a topic for another day.)

If you look at how brilliant mathematicians solved “unsolvable” problems, it was because they were able to see things in a different way. They were able to break conventional methods by introducing something others did not see before. Teachers ought to encourage that instead of quashing it. Egotistic teachers, however, see a different method as a bruise on their ego, especially if it was one they had never thought of before.

I remember, with much appreciation, my grade 6 teacher, Mrs. Lilia Peralta. During her lecture of a certain method, my classmate Anthony Montecillo’s hand shot up and he suggested a better, simpler way to solve the problem on the board. Mrs. Peralta invited him up to show and explain his solution. After he was done, she smiled and commended him saying, “We should name this the Montecillo method.” That cemented in my mind what a great math teacher should be.

At the heart of it, math is simply about solving problems. The particular solution doesn’t really matter (as long as it is logically correct and doesn’t break any rules). There is a famous story about a physics teacher who asked a student to measure the height of a building with a barometer. The supposedly correct answer was to use the pressure measured by the barometer, then plug it into a formula and solve for the height. But the student said he would simply tie the barometer with a string and lower it down from the roof of the building. The length of the string would be the height of the building.

The teacher complained that the solution didn’t demonstrate any physics principles. So the student rattled off several other ways like a) dropping the barometer from the roof and measuring the time it takes to hit the ground, from which he could compute the height; b) using the sun and measuring the barometer’s and building’s shadows then using simple ratio and proportion to compute the height; c) making a pendulum and measuring the periods from the top and bottom of the building and so on.

To top it all, the student added more wacky (but still correct) solutions like using the barometer as a ruler and slowly marking the height of the building while climbing the stairs to the top; or giving the building contractor the barometer as a bribe for telling him its exact height.

The point is that problems have many solutions and the teacher who is fixated on only one is doing his or her students a great disservice.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Killing Joy

When my daughter was in kindergarten, she was often praised for being sociable. Her classroom was a Montessori-type setup where kids were free to roam around and choose different corners where they would play with whatever materials were there. Her teachers would commend her for being helpful towards her classmates, and she would often be found surrounded by friends. She enjoyed going to school.

When she stepped into Grade 1, the environment changed into a more traditional setup with rows of chairs facing the whiteboard. We noticed a gradual shift in her attitude towards school, and one of her teachers complained that she was too talkative.

It was at that moment when I had a first real encounter of what was wrong with school. It takes what is natural and attempts to cage it, all in the name of “molding” and “shaping” the child into what he ought to be.

Little Johnny loved to draw. He would get “oohs” and “aahs” from his parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, and pre-school teachers who encouraged and commended him for his creativity and imagination. How bewildering it must have been for him, when he stepped into the “big school,” that he was now being reprimanded for what had previously garnered praise.  “Johnny, stop drawing and listen to teacher explain the different kinds of rocks!” Then he gets his notebook back after the teacher has inspected it and finds that he has been deducted points for neatness because he doodled on it.

Little Ella enjoyed dancing. She could dance the whole day. She would copy moves from videos she watched. She would make costumes with colored paper. She would gather her friends and choreograph moves. She was a hit at family gatherings and parties. Her kindergarten teachers loved her, especially during special events, because she would readily volunteer to dance. But now that she was a bit older, she doesn’t understand why her teachers keep insisting that she sit still for hours, listening, copying, writing. She would often just fidget and daydream in her seat, and would often get scolded for not paying attention.

“Perhaps, you should have a doctor check on Ella,” said the teacher to her parents. “She might have ADHD.”

How many stories like these have we heard? How many more go untold because we as adults don’t listen, or just shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s how it is,” or “Hey, I survived that. Grow a spine!”

For a lot of kids, the joy of learning, of being curious, is killed at school. What’s worse is that some even develop apathy or downright aversion towards it. Many teens are now suffering from stress or burnout, and perhaps one of the greatest reasons was articulated by Dr. Peter Gray:

Over the past several decades we’ve continuously increased the amount of time that children spend at school, and at schoolwork at home, and at school-like activities outside of school. We’ve turned childhood into a time of résumé building.”

My daughter is almost going to college now. She has spent the past two years of her life out of school. She took a homeschool program, but she’s also had a lot of time to explore what she wants. She can edit videos like a pro. In fact, she already has several paid projects under her belt. She can create digital designs and illustrations. She likes to bake too. She creates amazing cookies and revel bars and has already sold a lot of those. Her former classmates (aside from her grandparents and aunts) are her most loyal customers. She just shows up in school with her products and she’s almost guaranteed to sell out all of them by the end of the day.

I don’t regret taking her out of school. I think she has learned much more than had she stayed there.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Filipino First

Winnie Monsod’s recent column entitled “Why Filipinos Distrust China” contained the following lines which incensed a good number of Filipino-Chinese:

Actually, I have often observed, Reader, that a Chinese-Filipino will never ever state unequivocally that he/she is a Filipino first, and a Chinese second (meaning, his loyalty is to the Philippines)…Combine this with the fact that most of our billionaires are Chinese-Filipinos, and that Chinese-Filipinos (especially the males) seem to be culturally averse to marrying Filipino women, and that they are some of this country’s most hated employers. It then becomes easier to understand the distrust factor.

I was about to write a reaction to this, but my friend, Freddie Tan, beat me to it and I thought his version sounded a hundred times better than what I was planning to say, hence I simply got his permission to reprint it here:

I have always been Filipino first. Heck, I am more fluent in Tagalog and English than I am of Mandarin. Does that mean I love the USA more than China or that I love the USA just as much as I love the Philippines?

I however am not an ardent nationalist. I prefer to think of myself as a globalist and believe Nationalism is a concept that the world should outgrow soon if we want to ensure a future for the human race, as the problems we now face as a species are global in scope and no longer national.

I don’t espouse going to war with China, neither am I happy with the doormat response we seem to currently take towards them either. I didn’t like the previous administration’s overly aggressive handling of our diplomatic ties with China and I still don’t like how the current one is handling it. It’s like these people don’t understand that there’s more than two options. I don’t even understand why we have to choose and pivot between China and the USA. Seriously? Why not both? Why not neither?

The love for the USA that Filipinos have is culturally ingrained in our education and in our culture. It’s some kind of cultural Stockholm syndrome. Our education system is American. The medium of instruction is English. I used to joke during the 2016 elections that Grace Poe deserves to be our president, because she represents the hopes and dreams of practically every Filipino to one day be — an American citizen.

Historically, the Americans have done more damage to us than China. We have had a Fil-Am war, while we’ve never gone to war with China. The main difference is that we have been a colony of the Americans, and they have imparted/forced their culture onto us. They forced us to learn their language instead of [them] learning ours. Yet we love them. We’ve had very little history of Chinese aggression, except perhaps with some Chinese pirates, which were outlaws and not state sanctioned. Prior to the [West Philippine Sea] issue we have never really had a reason to have an aggressive stance towards China.

This woman’s views on the Chinese-Filipino are as dated as her advancing years. For her age having outdated views may be forgivable, but putting that out on the public podium of her opinion column is reprehensible. To advance a political agenda by promoting Xenophobia makes her no less reprehensible than the supposedly reprehensible people she works against. Creating scapegoats and straw men to make her own political agenda easier to push. Replacing drug lords/drug addicts with “Intsik” doesn’t really make you more noble.

I don’t trust the American government, I also don’t trust the Chinese government, and I also have very little trust in our own. Which probably explains why as I grow older I am constantly pushed to more libertarian thinking. She easily separated her opinions on the US government and the American people. I think everyone deserves that, including the Chinese people and more so the Chinese-Filipinos.

I personally am very sick and tired of Chinese-Filipinos being labelled as “negosyanteng intsik” if they are caught doing something nasty on the news, and being called Proudly Pinoy if we do something great.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Much Ado About Filipino

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the constitutionality of the K-12 program resulted in Filipino and Panitikan (Philippine Literature)  no longer being required core subjects in college. Of course, as expected, there were many howls of protest — those whose jobs and livelihood were affected, and those who feel that this will further erode our children’s sense of nationalism and love for country.

I am, however, not among those.

Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate the language and some aspects of culture. I watch some Filipino films, the few good ones we get anyway. I enjoy Filipino music and am an advocate of Filipino Martial Arts. Oh and yes, I read Bob Ong’s books and if you haven’t done so yet, go pick up a copy of A B N K K B S N P L A Ko. No, this isn’t a paid endorsement. There is so much fun and learning in that book — more than 14 years of Filipino classes from elementary to college.

More than any other subject, Filipino (which is really mostly Tagalog) traumatized me. Growing up, the only place I spoke it was in school. At home, I spoke Fookien Chinese to my parents and siblings. I spoke Bisaya to almost everyone else. I read English books and comics and watched English shows and movies. There was virtually no practical use for me to learn Filipino except to pass the subject, and I struggled with the grammar and vocabulary of a language I hardly spoke. Even in school, using Filipino was limited because we had a “Speak English” rule and in many instances, you could be fined for “speaking in dialect.”

I don’t believe that forcing a language down one’s throat will result in any sort of appreciation nor produce nationalism or love for country. What I felt was resentment, then outright hatred for the subject. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the language or refused to speak it. In fact, I believe I speak it quite well and there was a time I liked reading comics like Zuma and even Darna.

But the structured approach didn’t work for me, and of course, the low grades I got didn’t help and simply contributed to the downward spiral.

Nationalism and love for country does not have to be rooted in language. In the decades that we have been teaching the Filipino subject to millions who have passed through the school system, what do we have to show by way of nationalism and love for country? We can’t even be bothered to walk a few more steps to cross at pedestrian lanes. We throw trash anywhere instead of looking for a garbage can or just putting the trash in our pockets for proper disposal later. We smoke in no smoking areas and park in no parking zones. We beat red lights and many still beat their wives and kids. We cheat on anything we can get away with — taxes, work hours, allowances, or our spouses.

Love for country is about respecting and caring enough for your fellow human, and that language is universal.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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A Final Word on Finland

Having spent the past few weeks dissecting Finland’s educational system and comparing it to my preferred model, the Sudbury Valley School, has been enlightening for me. I’m not sure if you, my readers, have been similarly enlightened. But they do say that the person who learns most from any lesson is the teacher.

I guess the task of trying to understand the strengths of each model, and then trying to simplify and explain those models in small 500-word chunks (which is my weekly limit for this column) forced me to think of them in ways I had not thought of before.

So what’s my final verdict on the Finland system?

In a previous article, I mentioned seeing it as a halfway point between the strict confines of traditional schooling and the almost total freedom in a Sudbury school. I also mentioned the reason it is so successful in their country is because it moves towards liberation from the rigidity of the old systems.

In fact, an article recently caught my attention that Finland was already considering removing subjects from the curriculum in favor of a more holistic approach:

“Subject-specific lessons – an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon – are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper schools. They are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching – or teaching by topic. For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills…More academic pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union – which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.”

Instead of teaching various trivia per “subject,” they now want students to understand “topics” perhaps like global warming or pollution or recycling. And if it needs a little math or science or history along the way, then that gets taught as well, but it is now relevant because it helps the students understand the topic. It’s not just taught because “hey, you need this in college” or “it’s part of the curriculum” or something like that.

If I were to start a school, I would still go with the Sudbury model. I think it’s the best educational model there is. But for those already running traditional schools, shifting to a Sudbury model might be too radical and would bring a host of other issues that might overwhelm them. The best bet for them is to shift to the Finland model which I think can be done quite easily.

The problem lies not in the “how” as Tim Walker already lays down so many ways schools can start implementing the Finland system. The question is, are the school’s stakeholders — administrators, teachers, parents, students — willing to shift their mindset to accept this more liberal and collaborative approach to education?

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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