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March 6, 2014

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The math problem that’s dividing opinion

Thirty years ago, when China lagged far behind the West in science and technology, there was common consensus that getting ahead in life was guaranteed if young people studied mathematics, physics and chemistry.

Nowadays, as Western nations scramble to catch up with China in math and science education, it’s still a commonly held belief. But some here are beginning to wonder if it’s all a bit overdone.

Last week, a British Education Minister, Elizabeth Truss, visited Shanghai as part of a fact-finding trip to discover why students in the city ranked first in the world for math proficiency. She said she would return to Britain with the message she heard from teachers she met: “math can get you everywhere.”

Her visit came after Shanghai’s 15-year-olds ranked first for math in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. Britain ranked 26th.

Truss’s utterances were widely reported in local media, sparking some public discussion about the value of math in a student’s future life. Does everyone really need to know how to calculate the half-life of an isotope or the area of an equilateral triangle to get ahead in fields such as sociology, finance or nursing?

“I did a lot of math exercises before I entered university, but I really don’t know how math helps me now,” said Chen Yi, who is in her second year studying to be a Chinese-language teacher at Shanghai Normal University.

Chen’s university curriculum doesn’t require her to study advanced math. She said she doesn’t use anything beyond simple calculations in her daily life.

Like Chen, a large number of students who spent 12 years of onerous study learning algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus now find it all pretty irrelevant in their chosen career paths.

“I once browsed through my high school math exercise books and found I’d forgotten nearly everything I’d learnt,” said Chen, adding that she doesn’t think every child should be under pressure to be good at math.

Her sentiments resonate with many people. Luo Jichao, a 27-year-old prison guard, said he used to be good at math, but trigonometric functions and square roots aren’t useful in his current job.

“I think learning math is important in cultivating thinking skills and logic,” Luo said. “It’s fine to learn, but I think the degree of difficulty pushed on average students could be reduced.”

Stringent high school and college entrance exams that stress math proficiency are blamed by people like Chen and Luo for what they consider an overemphasis on math in middle and high schools.

Not everyone agrees. On the other side of the debate are those who think the discipline and logic of mathematics contribute to a well-rounded education, no matter what career a person chooses.

“Many people think math is useless in daily life because they see it merely as a calculation tool and ignore the fact that math methods are used to solve problems in many different disciplines,” said Lu Xinsheng, a professor at the Mathematics and Science College of Shanghai Normal University.

Lu conceded that the math curriculum, as currently structured, pays too much attention to solving number problems instead of practical problems, creating the illusion that math is of no use in daily life. He said the PISA results showed that  Shanghai students were weaker in applying mathematical methods to address practical problems.

In the past decade, Shanghai has endeavored to reform the math curriculum to focus it more on developing innovative thinking and reduce the burden of study for students with no particular flair for numbers.

The reforms have been modestly effective, said Lu, but they butt up against the rigorous demands of entrance exams that students need to pass to get into good high schools and universities.

Lu said he is opposed to the idea of making math an optional course in middle and high schools. Students at that age are too young to determine if math will be useful to them in the future, he said.

Zhang Minxuan, president of Shanghai Normal University and director of the PISA Program in Shanghai, said cultivating elite math talent is crucial if Shanghai is to realize its goals of becoming an advanced center of technological and scientific development. Math knowledge is essential in the building of bridges, skyscrapers, spacecraft and computer software, he said.

But for ordinary students, there is no need to spend huge amounts of time doing math exercises just to get a few more points on an exam, he said.


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