Monday, April 19, 2010

The right way to study maths

Here is a fantastic presentation by a maths teacher, Dan Meyer, explaining what is wrong with virtually every maths textbook out there:

What I like about his idea is that it focuses on first understanding the concept, and only then applying the maths. It harnesses your intuition about a problem you would normally encounter in the real world to get you on the hook, so you have no choice but to learn the maths to get your answer.

He speaks as if this is a problem unique to the US, but it is not. As he says, teachers from all around the world have approached him about his ideas, because they resonate on a global basis. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman has a famous essay on the irrelevance of mathematics textbooks in a similar vein.

Notice that Meyer identifies five symptoms of bad maths teaching. I think all of us in our school system have suffered from these symptoms at some point; the aversion to word problems and the over-eagerness to harness a simple formula must ring a bell for anyone who's ever stepped into a classroom here. Now the question is, how can we bring this new philosophy of teaching into our classrooms and textbooks?


Shawn Tan said...

Trying to introduce a change into the way math is taught in our schools would be very demanding. It is not just about changing the syllabus and the textbooks - those are the easy bits. It is ultimately about changing the mindset of an entire generation of teachers. Teachers need to be retrained to be able to teach math problems in a different way. Obviously, parents would also need to be convinced that the new way is better and not just another fuzzy way of learning math. However, seeing that there are so many math schools sprouting up in KL, they should be easy to convince.

That said, I don't think that this method will work on all students. Although it is a lofty goal to try to teach math like this to everyone, a lot also depends on whether the students are receptive to it. I don't think one size fits all in this case.

Anonymous said...

Normally don’t do this type of thing, but I just read this book and it was fantastic. Its called “You Have A College Degree, Now What?” and I now feel as if I’m in the right frame of mind for success to take place. I’m graduating from college in May and thanks to this book I now feel prepared. Here’s where I found it at.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr John Lee

Same challenge in the teaching of statistics to non-statisticians and non-stats majors (such as health sciences students).

My colleague and I wrote a book on
how non-statisticians can use and learn stats but we have difficulty getting the book published! (I suppose the book reviewers who are stats people frown on "How To" stats books like this one).
We have made it available on


Phua Kai Lit

gambar said...

I remember when i was in school many years ago, I never liked math because it seemed just like a puzzle without a purpose. The exercises only yieleded useless numbers. When i started to learn science that invoved mathematical calculations such as physics, i started to see the usefulness in math as a tool to solve science related problems. All the algebra, phytogotas theorem, calculus finally made sense and seemed intuitive. Before then, they were just puzzles that led to nowhere.

Jo said...

Being a 2nd year Maths undergraduate, I can safely tell you that the 5 symptoms mentioned, unfortunately, still persists within some of my peers. It doesn't help that some of the lecturers are not good at imparting knowledge to students and voila!

short courses said...

I know I am not that good in Math but ironically I love the subject especially when applied to science.
Great post!