Monday, July 9, 2012

Do we really need to learn calculus in school?

I received a request from Frederick Koh, a JC maths tutor asking me to contribute a guest post on his blog, White Group Mathematics. My first reaction was maths? What do I know about maths?

He then clarified that I didn't actually have to write something on maths, just anything on education but the obsessive personality that I am thought a maths-related post would be more appropriate.

Objectively, I think I have enough of a logical brain to tackle basic maths. I coached both my kids in primary school maths and there's something about the puzzle-solving aspects of primary school maths that appeal to me. My personal experience with maths was generally positive too - I sailed through maths in primary school and E Maths at 'O' levels.

However, this led me to erroneously believe that I could manage Maths C at 'A' levels even though I hadn't studied Add Maths at 'O' levels. Boy, was I wrong. I sat in oblivion throughout the 2 years, despite my classmates' best efforts to help. The tutor practically gave up on me and skipped past me whenever he asked my classmates a question. In the end, by a miracle, I achieved a C grade, to which the tutor reacted epically - "You?? You got a C???"

There's just something about the strings of random numbers that baffle my mostly right brain. Sometimes, they're attached to letters, other times, with funny incomprehensible squiggles and notations. Worst still, sometimes the numbers don't even line up in the same row (miniature ones written above or below other numbers like they're an afterthought). It's like Morse code in an alien language.

I have a PRC friend and back in China, he was in the gifted programme for maths. He shared how in China, there are only gifted programmes for maths and science - such is the emphasis on what is commonly perceived as the pragmatic and "superior" subjects.

"What about China's great legacy of literature and the arts?" I asked. He explained that the government felt China's heritage in the arts caused the country's economic decline so they are now over-compensating. In fact, he told me that all the current China leaders have backgrounds in maths or science.

He feels that this complete neglect of the humanities is a great disservice to Chinese kids. He cites his own example where he wishes that he had learned more soft skills like communications, people management and so on so he can better function at work. He says up to today, he has yet to apply any of the calculus he'd studied (even though he once worked as an engineer).

As someone who's always been in the humanities underdog camp, it isn't hard for me to sympathise with him. But I got to thinking, there are actually two different controversies at work here.

The more obvious one is clearly the maths/science-humanities struggle. Which is more important? It would be easy for me to side with the humanities but my answer is both, and I'm not just trying to be politically correct. The maths and sciences set the foundation for logical thinking and deduction, there's no denying the importance of this. It's not enough just to be able to give customers the correct change or work out how much that bag of apples at the supermarket costs. That's why even though Lesley-Anne doesn't have the aptitude for maths, I tell her that having a good foundation of maths is important.

As for the humanities, well, it fosters critical thinking and deeper reflection into the intangibles, into human behaviour. Much in this world is different shades of grey, not black-and-white. Solutions often can't be calculated via a fixed formula or measured on a quantitative scale, and the humanities teach us how to wrap our minds around the fuzzy and give it meaning. In this connected world where people brashly push forth their arguments and opinions, it's more important than ever not to blindly believe what you read and to question everything with a critical mind. (Yes, including my post).

But beyond the superficial maths/science vs humanities conundrum lies another conflict in my friend's statement. He felt that the years he spent learning calculus would have been better spent learning skills like communication because he could use it in real life. It's this intrinsic belief that in education, what you learn must be usable to be considered useful.

Granted, if you're training to be a mechanic, I sure hope whatever you learn will be useful enough to enable you to fix my car. But this idea that education has to be practical is essentially another left brain argument. To me, it dilutes the value of education because it reduces education to yet another commodity.

It means that if you don't intend to draw, there's no point in learning art. By that same token, learning Chinese is needed only if we intend to do future business with China. I've always thought this moot point as I suspect all the enterprising Chinese entrepreneurs are mastering English as we speak, for the same pragmatic reasons.

Education is not the same as training, it has to have a higher purpose. That's been one of the main criticisms of the Singapore education system, that it doesn't educate individuals, it trains them. Beyond learning how to read and write, count apples and how gravity works, education should enable us to be more thinking versions of ourselves.

At every level, we should have this, to different degrees. At primary school, it could be as simple as asking questions about a science experiment. At secondary school, critical analysis of a social issue. At JC and university? Well, why not calculus?

Right upfront, I'll say the only thing I know about Calculus is that it's the name of a character in the Tintin comics. I looked at the universal authority on all things aka wikipedia and here's what it says: Calculus (Latin: a small stone used for counting) is a branch of mathematics focused on limits, functions, derivatives, integrals and infinite series.

Ahhhh... nope. Catch no ball.

But despite my ignorance about calculus, I'm pretty certain that calculus does make you think deeper about certain concepts of maths. And as long as something you learn in school helps you exercise your brain in thinking deeper and more laterally, chances are, it's valuable. You just don't know it. The same way that many people think literature isn't useful cos nobody spouts poetry at work in real life. But literature helps you read between the lines, analyse human behaviour and appreciate the subtleties of the written word, all of which is important in life.

So I wouldn't write off calculus just yet. (Do I hear Frederick heave a sigh of relief?) As I've always advised parents, when your child has to choose his or her subject combinations, instead of saying, "take the most useful one" (which is only marginally better than "take the subjects you can score in" or "take the subjects that can earn you the most money"), tell them to take the subjects they're passionate about. Passion ignites learning and from there, they will have a better chance of extracting value from it and becoming more thinking individuals.

That's what education is all about.

This post was published on White Group Mathematics here.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mon,

Another follower of your blogs.
i guess we complement each other - you a humanities person with flair for maths/puzzles, me a left brain person with a flair for some literature.

And this post about calculus made me kinda nostalgic.

I dont remember much of it just that i was very good at it and that I use it nowhere now. But well, when i was studying, it was a challenge, one that i loved to take. That it is not useful to me in worklife is immaterial. What matters it spured me to work and devloped me.

Thanks to you for validating that.

monlim said...

Anon: That's cool. I'm pretty sure if you're able to solve some real life puzzle or work out some complicated problem that requires logical deduction, you could do it cos you honed that part of the brain doing maths. Just because we can't see the direct link doesn't mean it isn't there.

So no need to feel apologetic about having learnt calculus! And thanks for following my blog :)

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica
That's a nice post.
You are absolutely right about the objectives of education. Education is about developing the WHOLE person, not downloading skill-sets that allow the individuals to earn big bucks and/or the country to ramp up its economy. The corollary of this is that there is a space for the arts, sports and other non-academic/economic pursuits in the education sphere.

You are also right we should encourage the young ones to pursue what they are truly passionate about. Only when we are passionate about something can we actually excel in it.


monlim said...

Grace: Thanks for the assurance! Great to know there are other parents out there who can see the larger objectives of education.

Anonymous said...

hi, ange here.
I disagree with your idea to "follow your passion", purely because I did Lit at 'A' Level, and if anything killed my "passion", it was having to dissect good writing that should simply have been enjoyed.

End result: lousy grades and a shudder when I hear of kids studying Lit. Should've paid more attention to my Maths & Science!

monlim said...

Ange: Hahaha, you different mah, you ended up being an engineer, no? So maybe you had latent passions in Math and Science, you just never realised it! LOL

Karmeleon said...

I got an A1 for Add.Math and still found it difficult to cope with A-level C-maths!

And... these days, taking math is NOT an option in JC! It's compulsory for all subject combinations!

monlim said...

Karmeleon: I heard about maths being compulsory in JC. That really sucks! Still trying to see if L-A can escape this route in JC...

Karmeleon said...

Is there such a combination anymore? No math, I mean?

There is no longer Further Math as a subject though. I believe L-A will have to take some Higher Papers too ... that too is "compulsory" in the top JCs .

monlim said...

I think there are options without maths at JC but it probably means taking KI as the contrasting subject (for humanities combinations, I mean).

Higher Papers, you mean H3 subjects? I didn't know that was "compulsory" too, sigh. We're finding out more as we go along!

Karmeleon said...

I did a bit of searching online on MOE and JC. I guess you are right.

And yes, I was talking about H3 subjects. The top JCs expect every student to take at least 1 H3 - not much criteria to it. In the other JCs, students have to be straight A students before they can apply to do any H3. That's what I know from my daughter and her friends who are now in JC2 .

monlim said...

Karmeleon: I just find the JC system extremely rigid. On the surface, there appears to be lots of choice but in actuality, many things are deemed "compulsory". Pretty stifling, if you ask me!

Anonymous said...

hi, my child is in RI JC2. No it is not compulsory to take H3, I think about half did not take any H3. Requirements for taking 1 H3 include C and above for all subjects in JC1 promos, and A/B in the subject you are taking the H3.

monlim said...

Anon: Thanks, that's very helpful!

Akhilesh said...

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