What Is Math But Solving Problems? (Part 1)

Photo Credit: Neil Tackaberry Flickr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Neil Tackaberry Flickr via Compfight cc

There is a problem with math education today. I wrote an entrance exam for applicants of our company, a drugstore chain in the city. The exam was designed to test basic knowledge and real-world problem-solving skills. Part of the exam are questions like, if this medicine costs 4.75 each and a customer buys 18 tablets, how much should he pay? The most difficult question involves the item having a discount, and then asking how much change the customer should get if he pays with a large bill.

These are questions high school graduates should have little to no difficulty in solving (and yes, we tested it on some college students we know and they managed to solve them correctly). Yet we have many applicants who are supposedly college graduates who cannot answer the questions correctly. In fact, less than 50% of our applicants manage to pass the entire exam.

The problem, I believe is that math education has been too much focused on making students learn the how and not enough of the why. There is too much focus on skills and not enough on the purpose. A question most students ask about math is “What’s the use of this in real life?” and it’s a question math teachers brush aside or answer with some vague and useless reply like, “Oh it’s very useful. You’ll understand when you get to college.”

That is sad and unfortunate. Math teachers should pay more attention to that question. It should not be taken lightly. Answering that question satisfactorily can turn a disinterested student into an eager lifelong learner.

There is a Filipino saying that goes, “Kung gusto, may paraan. Kung ayaw, maraming dahilan.” Meaning, if you want something, you will find many ways of doing it, but if you don’t like to do something, you will also find many excuses not to.

Most students don’t understand why they’re doing math so they end up despising it because it is “useless” and a “waste of time.” They learn skills without knowing their purpose and thus easily forget them. The key is to get students to know WHY they’re doing something, and then they will become interested, and not only remember how to do it, but find even better and more innovative methods of doing so.

In our house, I am the designated Math tutor and I always have a hard time with my 12-year old son. Previously, I thought that he was just not as capable as his siblings. But recently, he developed a keen interest in playing with Rubik’s Cube. He followed some tutorial videos on Youtube and he can now solve the entire cube very quickly. I myself have never managed to solve more than one face of the cube at a time and I had to ask him to teach me. Then I told him, you know you’re already doing Math with this. It’s all about understanding what the blocks look like now, then how you want it to look, and then taking the necessary steps to get there.

“What is Math but solving problems?” said Dr. Norman Quimpo, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. So simple, so true, yet it is an assertion that many math teachers fail to grasp. They spend so much time teaching students to compute by hand that they have little time left teaching them how to understand the problem and how to understand the answers.

When I was teaching algebra, for example, I liked to stress that solving for x does not mean you have answered the problem. Sometimes, the answer to the problem is not the answer to the equation. And sometimes, you can even solve the problem without solving for x. One of my pet peeves is having teachers who stress only one way of solving a problem. That is such a narrow-minded approach. Math is not about knowing the ‘proper way’ to solve a problem because there is no such thing as a proper way. Rather it is about understanding a problem and then finding a solution to it and the solution may be more ingenious than you think and should in fact be celebrated rather than marked as wrong.

I remember in grade school, when my brilliant classmate Anthony Montecillo, proposed an alternate solution to a problem that the teacher had given. Instead of insisting on her method, our teacher invited Anthony to go to the board and explain his solution, which turned out to be faster and more intuitive than the “standard” method. Our teacher then praised the solution and dubbed it and said something like, “Oh, we should include this in our math books and call it the Montecillo method.”

Oh, if all teachers could be like that.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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One thought on “What Is Math But Solving Problems? (Part 1)”

  1. How refreshing to find that I am not alone in despairing at the mathematics being taught to Grade School and High School students. Electronic calculators are both a blessing and a curse; it is clearly a waste of time to calculate manually the product of 12.35 and 0.0167, but at some stage the student should be taught the PRINCIPLE of the manual method. The object is, surely, not merely to get the right answer, but to understand how that answer was arrived at. This – I would contend – requires a step by step approach when the topic is first taught – TERRIBLY wasteful in time and paper, but emphasizing by repetition the real MEANING of the process. After that, should the student ever forget the ‘formula’ he/she should use to solve a similar problem, he/she will always be able to reconstruct it from first principles.
    Re your experience of students who discover approaches which are more sensible than those taught by the teacher, I have had experiences where teachers will defend even wrong answers or meaningless questions because they appear in the textbook. That is hardly surprising; the teachers themselves have been taught by the same methods which they are employing with (against?) their students. How this vicious circle can be broken is the 64,000 dollar question; I tend to despair when I am told, by a Chemistry Professor from the Ateneo de Manila, that there is no way that the Philippine Chemical Society can prevent the publication of totally erroneous and misleading chemical “facts” in textbooks published in this country. Who will protect the students from their teachers and the text-book writers?

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