Most of us may not admit it, but we’ve all fallen victim to the lure of innumeracy—the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy—consciously or unconsciously. Here are twenty of my favorite innumerate events I often witness among my numerate and semi-numerate friends, colleagues, and relatives.
• Taking a 45-minute train journey to save a few dollars at Carrefour or Walmart.
• Lining up for hours (or even days, if you’re in China?) to buy an iPhone or iPad.
• Paying a numerologist or geomancy crank to divine your “lucky” and “unlucky” days.
• Visiting a feng-shui master to offer advice how best to arrange your furniture at home, or in your office, to ward off negative or “unwanted energies.”
• Buying similar items in bulk at discounted prices, which you don’t need but because they’re cheap.
• Offering foods to idols [aka gods and goddesses] in the hope that they’ll bring you good luck and prosperity in return.
• Canceling all major business dealings, weddings, or product launches during the Ghost (or Seventh) Month.
Now is your turn to share with the mathematical brethren at least half a dozen of your pet innumerate activities—those numerical idiocies or idiosyncrasies— that you (or your loved ones) were indulged in at some not-too-distant point in the past.
In recent years, because of the popularity of Singapore math books being promoted and used in many countries, suddenly local publishers seemed to have been hit by an aha! moment. They realized that it’s timely (or simply long overdue?) that they should come up with a general or pop book on the Singapore’s model (or bar) method for the lay public, especially among those green to the problem-solving visualization strategy.
A Monograph à la Singapour
The first official title on the Singapore model method to hit the local shelves was one co-published by the Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) and Panpac Education, which the MOE christened a “monograph” to the surprise of those in academia. Thank God, they didn’t call it Principia Singapura!
This wallet-unfriendly—over-promise, under-deliver— title did fairly well, considering that it was the first official publication by the MOE to feature the merits of the Singapore’s model method to a lay audience. Half of the book over-praises the achievements of the MOE in reversing the declining math performance of local students in the seventies and eighties, almost indirectly attributing Singapore’s success in TIMMS and PISA to the model method, although there has never been any research whatsoever to suggest that there is a correlation between the use of the model method and students’ performances in international comparison studies.
Busy and stressed local parents and teachers are simply not interested in reading the first part of this “monograph”; they’re looking for some practical teaching strategies that could help them coach their kids, particularly in applying the model method to solving word problems. However, to their utter disappointment, they found out that assessment (or supplementary) math books featuring challenging word problems are a better choice in helping them master the problem-solving strategy, from the numerous graded worked examples and detailed (and often alternative) solutions provided—and most of them cost a fraction of the price of the “monograph.”
A Missed Opportunity for a Better Strategy
Not long after the MOE’s publication, the Singapore public was spoilt with another local title on the bar method. Unfortunately, the editorial team working on Bar Modeling then didn’t take advantage of the lack of breadth and depth of the MOE’s “monograph” to offer a better book in meeting the needs and desires of local parents and overseas math educators, especially those not versed with the bar model method.
Based on some investigation and feedback why Dr. Yeap Ban Har didn’t seize the opportunity to publish a better book than the one co-published by the MOE, it sounds like Dr. Yap had submitted his manuscript one or two years prior to the MOE’s publication, but by the time his publisher realized that the MOE had released a [better?] book similar to theirs, they had little time to react (or maybe they just over-reacted to the untimely news?); as a result, they seemed to have only made some cosmetic changes to the original manuscript. Sounds like what we call in local educational publishing as an example of “editors sitting on the manuscript” for ages or years only to decide publishing it when a competitor has already beaten them to the finishing line.
This is really a missed opportunity, not to say, a pity that the editorial team failed to leverage on the weaknesses or inadequacies of the MOE title to deliver a better book to a mathematically hungry audience, at an affordable price.
Is Another Bar Model Method Book Needed?
Early this year, we’re blessed with another title on the bar method, and this time round, it’s reasonably affordable, considering that the contents are familiar to most local teachers, tutors, and educated parents. This 96-page publication—no re-hashed Dr. Kho articles and authors’ detailed mathematical achievements—comprises four topics to showcase the use of the model method: Whole Numbers, Fractions, Ratio, and Percentage.
As in Dr. Yeap book, the questions unfortunately offer only one model drawing, which may give novices the impression that no alternative bar or model drawings are possible for a given question. The relatively easy questions would help local students gain confidence in solving routine word problems that lend themselves to the model method; however, self-motivated problem solvers would find themselves ill-equipped to solve non-routine questions that favor the visualization strategy.
In the preface, the authors emphasized some pedagogical or conceptual points about the model method, which are arguably debatable. For example, on page three, they wrote:
“In the teaching of algebra, teachers are encouraged to build on the Bar Model Method to help students and formulate equations when solving algebraic equations.”
Are we not supposed to wean students off the model method, as they start taking algebraic food for their mathematical diet? Of course, we want a smooth transition, or seamless process, that bridges the intuitive visual model method to the abstract algebraic method.
Who Invented the Model method?
Because one of the authors had previously worked with Dr. Kho Tek Hong, they mentioned that he was a “pioneer of the model method.” True, he was heading the team that made up of household names like Hector Chee and Sin Kwai Meng, among others, who helped promote the model method to teachers in the mid-eighties, but to claim that Dr. Kho was the originator or inventor of the bar method sounds like stretching the truth. Understandably, it’s not well-known that the so-called model method was already used by Russian or American math educators, decades before it was first unveiled among local math teachers.
I’ll elaborate more on this “acknowledgement” or “credit” matter in a future post—why the bar model method is “math baked in Singapore,” mixing recipes from China, US, Japan, Russia, and probably from a few others like Israel and UK.
Mr. Aden Gan‘s No-Frills Two-Book Series
Let me end with two local titles which I believe offer a more comprehensive treatment of the Singapore model method to laypersons, who just want to grasp the main concepts, and to start applying the visual strategy to solving word problems. I personally don’t know the author, nor do I have any vested interest in promoting these two books, but I think they’re so far the best value-for-money titles in the local market, which could empower both parents and teachers new to the model method to appreciate how powerful the problem-solving visualization strategy is in solving non-routine word problems.
A number of locals may feel uneasy in purchasing these two math books published by EPH, the publishing arm of Popular outlets, because EPH’s assessment math books are notoriously known to be editorially half-baked, and EPH every now and then churns out reprinted or rehashed titles whose contents are out of syllabus. However, my choice is still on these two wallet-friendly local books if you seriously want to learn some basics or mechanics on the Singapore model (or bar) method—and if editorial and artistic concerns are secondary to your elementary math education.
Curriculum Planning & Development Division Ministry of Education, Singapore (2009). The Singapore model method. Singapore: EPB Pan Pacific.
Gan, A. (2014). More model methods and advanced strategies for P5 and P6. Singapore: Educational Publishing House Pte. Ltd.
Based on the average number of questions contained in an assessment (or supplementary) math book these days, it can be estimated that most students in Singapore would have solved some seven thousand math questions by the time they had graduated from elementary school. Indeed, an awful lot, to say the least.
I try to understand why local math writers feel that they’ve to provide such an unhealthy number of these drill-and-kill questions or routines for students to practice. Surely, their publishers are behind this “numerical obscenity,” arguing that many kiasu parents would feel that they’re buying a value-for-money book. Imagine the emotional or psychological harm it could do to a child who barely has any interest in the subject.
Even for those with a fluency with numbers, wouldn’t a thousand (or even half of that number) questions bore them to death? Many would end up getting a distorted picture of what elementary math is all about—imitate-practice-imitate more-practice more.
The Junk Food of Singapore’s Math Education
Drill-and-kill math questions are like the junk food of math education. Every now and then, we all visit these fast food outlets, but to grow up on a diet that consists mainly of burgers, French flies, and Coke for most days of the week, that can only be a good recipe for unavoidable obesity and all sorts of preventable diseases that would pop up sooner than later. Likewise, over-exposing students to these math drills would only produce an army of drill-and-kill specialists, who wouldn’t be able to think critically and creatively in mathematics—and later in life.
The Baby [Math] Gift for Singapore’s Jubilee
For Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, when the nation celebrates its 50th year of independence in 2015, other than giving items like a special medallion, a multi-functional shawl, and a set of baby clothes, one of the suggested gifts by the mathematical brethren to be given to Singaporean babies born next year should be a check amounting to not less than a thousand bucks. This would help defray the average cost incurred by parents who would need to buy those elementary math supplementary titles during the child’s formative years—it’s a rite of passage for every child studying in a Singapore government school to expose himself or herself to these drill-and-kill questions. Even if parents are opposed to these math drills, school teachers or tutors might still recommend the child to buy one!
Drill-and-Kill Specialists or Innumerates
Of course, it’s better to produce tens of thousands of drill-and-kill specialists than an army of innumerates. In the short term, this raises the self-esteem of the children, as they feel that they can solve most of these routine questions, by parroting the solutions of the worked examples. We all learn by imitation, but at least the questions need to slowly move from routine to non-routine. We can’t afford to have hundreds of questions that test the same skills or sub-skills almost without end. We need a balanced percent of drills, non-drills, and challenging questions—not a disproportionate unhealthy number of drill-and-kill questions, which would only affect our long-term mathematical health.
The Good Part of Drill-and-Kill
One good thing about these wallet-friendly drill-and-kill math titles is that they can easily replace a lousy or lazy math teacher, or even a mathophobic parent. After all, we can’t expect too much from a mathematical diet that could help sustain (or even strengthen) us for a while. At best, they’re like Kumon Math, which subscribes to the philosophy that more practice and more drill could eventually help the child to become self-motivated, and to raise his or her self-esteem in the short term.
Are You a Disciple of Drill-and-Kill?
If mathematical proficiency is credited to be achieved through practice and more practice, would you buy a few of these math practice titles for your child? Or, as a teacher or tutor, would you recommend one for your student or tutee? Don’t you think that this is a case of “more is less”? Could the child end up being mathematically undernourished when it comes to creative problem solving and higher-order thinking? Or maybe the child could even be numerically constipated by an overdose of these drill-and-kill questions?
If you had been on Facebook for some time, it’s very likely that you would have come across a certain type of numbers puzzles streaming your feed. Clearly, they’re not quite the typical numerical puzzles that often appear in school math books; rather, they’re closer to the types of questions posed in aptitude or IQ tests. One such number puzzle is the following.
Unlike in textbooks that often present these logic puzzles in an uninteresting way, by seeing these colorful number puzzles on Facebook or Pinterest, and being hinted that only a small percent of the problem solvers apparently managed to get the correct answer, this entices readers to give it a try to see how well they’ll fare vis-à-vis their oft-mathematically challenged Facebook friends. Here’s another such number puzzle.
Arguably, these numbers-and-words puzzles have a certain charm to it, because they often require just simple logic to solving them, unlike similar brainteasers that may require some knowledge of elementary or middle-school math. What about the following Facebook numerical puzzle?
What is 1 + 1?
What do you make of this one?
If these on-line numbers puzzles indirectly help promote logic and number sense among math-anxious social-media addicts; and along the way, provide them with some fun and entertainment, let’s have more of them in cyberspace!
Let me leave you with half a dozen of these numerical puzzles, stolen from my Facebook feed. Note that these types of brain-unfriendly math or logic questions may have more than one mathematically or logically valid answer, depending on the rule or formula you use—they serve as numerical catalysts for promoting creative thinking in mathematics.
In my formative years, I don’t recall any elementary school teachers sharing some mathematical puns with us. I suppose that the arithmetic of yesteryear was often taught in the most uninteresting way by many who probably didn’t look forward to teaching it to a bunch of noisy kids.
There are 100 chickens and rabbits altogether. The chickens have 80 more legs than the rabbits. How many chickens and how many rabbits are there?
Other than using a guess-and-guess strategy and an algebraic method, both of which offering little pedagogical or creative insight, let me repeat below one of the two intuitive methods I discussed then.
Since the chickens have 80 more legs than the rabbits, this represents 80 ÷ 2 = 40 chickens.
Among the remaining (100 – 40) = 60 chickens and rabbits, the number of chicken legs must be equal to the number of rabbit legs.
Since a rabbit has twice as many legs as a chicken, the number of chickens must be twice the number of rabbits in order for the total number of legs to be equal.
From the model drawing,
3 units = 100 − 40 = 60
1 unit = 60 ÷ 3 = 20
Number of rabbits = 1 unit = 20
Number of chickens = 2 units + 40 = 2 × 20 + 40 = 80
The Bicycles-and-Tricycles Problem
Again, if we decided to ban any trial-and-error or algebraic method, how would you apply the intuitive method discussed above to solve a similar word problem on bicycles and tricycles?
There are 60 bicycles and tricycles altogether. The bicycles have 35 more wheels than the tricycles. How many bicycles and tricycles are there?
Go ahead and give it a try. What do you discover? Do you make any headway? In solving the bicycles-and-tricycles question, I find that there are no fewer of half a dozen methods or strategies, which could be introduced to elementary school students, three of which lend themselves easily to the model, or bar, method, excluding the Sakamoto method.
Here are some pointers I would share with my students at the start of a secondary math olympiad programme. In Singapore, most mathletes attending these enrichment classes are usually selected by the form or math teacher, who tends to choose the best three math students from each class to form a small group of 15 to 20 participants. They would then graduate to represent the school after attending a six-, eight-, or ten-session training programme, depending on the mathematical needs and wants of the school.
• Take your time! Very few contestants can solve all given problems within the time limit. For instance, in the Singapore Mathematics Olympiad (SMO), both at the junior and senior levels, [unconfirmed] feedback based on different schools’ results hints to the fact that those who can win a medal hover around five percent.
Interestingly but disturbingly, an SMO mathlete who can get six or seven out of 35 questions correct may still win a bronze medal, revealing how unmoderated olympiad math papers had been in recent years, going by the abnormally high rate of failures among the participants. This is primarily due to the fact that few, if any, faculty members who set these competition papers, are familiar with what elementary and middle school teachers are covering in local schools.
• Try the “easier” questions first. The questions aren’t set in ascending order of difficulty. It’s not uncommon to see easier questions in the second half of the paper.
• Olympiad questions don’t “crack” immediately. Be patient. Try various approaches. Experiment with simple cases. Working backwards from the desired result in some cases is helpful.
• If you’re using a contests book, and you’re stuck, glance at the “Hints” section. Sometimes a problem requires an unusual idea or technique.
• Even if you can solve a problem, read the hints and solutions. The hints may contain some ideas or insights that didn’t occur in your solution, and they may discuss intuitive, strategic, or tactical approaches that can be used elsewhere.
Remember that modeled or elegant solutions often conceal the torturous or tedious process of investigation, false starts, inspiration and attention to detail that led to them. Be aware of the behind-the-scenes hours-long dirty mathematical work! When you read the modeled solutions, try to reconstruct the thinking that went into them. Ask yourself, “What were the key ideas?” “How can I apply these ideas further?”
• Go back to the original problem later, and see if you can solve it in a different way, or in a different context. When all else fails, remember the reliable old friend, the guess-and-check strategy (or heuristic, as it’s being arguably called in Singapore)—for instance, substituting the optional answers-numbers given in an MCQ into some given equation or expression may yield the answer sooner than later.
Meaningful or creative problem solving takes practice, with insightful or elegant solutions not being the norm. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t seem to make any headway at first. The key isn’t to give up; come back to the question after a day or a week. Stickability and perseverance are two long-time buddies for full-time problem solvers.
A rectangular enclosure is 30 meters wide and 50 meters long. Calculate its area in square meters.
The My Pals Are Here Math Series
The My Pals Are Here series has been rumored to have been edited and ghostwritten by a hundred odd editors and freelancers in the last decade.
Lack of mathematical rigor was initially targeted against Dr. Fong Ho Kheong and his two co-authors by American profs in the first or/and second editions —probably by those who were “ghost advisors or consultants” for Everyday Math.
Deconstructing the Singapore Model Method
1. It’s a problem-solving strategy—a subset of the “Draw a diagram” strategy.
2. It’s a hybrid of China’s line method and Russia’s box (or US’s bar) method.
3. It’s the “Draw a diagram” strategy, which has attained a brand status in mathematics education circles.
4. It’s a problem-solving method that isn’t recommended for visually challenged or impaired learners.
5. It allows questions traditionally set at higher grades (using algebra) to be posed at lower grades (using bars).
Painless Singapore Math
Perhaps that’s how we’d promote Singapore math to an often-mathophobic audience!
A Singapore Ex-Minister’s Math Book
Dr. Yeo had the handwriting below depicted in his recreational math book, regarding his two granddaughters, Rebecca and Kathryn.
In Singapore, in grades four and five, there is one type of word problems that seldom fail to appear in most local problem-solving math books and school test papers, but almost inexistent in local textbooks and workbooks. This is another proof that most Singapore math textbooks ill-prepare local students to tackle non-routine questions, which are often used to filter the nerd from the herd, or at least stream the “better students” into the A-band classes.
Here are two examples of these “excess-and-shortage word problems.”
Some oranges are to be shared among a group of children. If each child gets 3 oranges, there will be 2 oranges left. If each child gets 4 oranges, there will be a shortage of 2 oranges. How many children are there in the group?
A math book costs $9 and a science book costs $7. If Steve spends all his money in the science books, he still has $6 left. However, if he buys the same number of math books, he needs another $8 more. (a) How many books is Steve buying? (b) How much money does he have?
Depicted below is a page from a grade 3/4 olympiad math book. It seems that the author preferred to give a quick-and-easy numerical recipe to solving these types of excess-and-shortage problems—it’s probably more convenient and less time-consuming to do so than to give a didactic exposition how one could logically or intuitively solve these questions with insight.
A page from Terry Chew’s “Maths Olympiad” (2007).
Strictly speaking, it’s incorrect to categorize these questions under the main heading of “Excess-and-Shortage Problems,” because it’s not uncommon to have situations, when the conditions may involve two cases of shortage, or two instances of excess.
In other words, these incorrectly called “excess-and-shortage” questions are made up of three types:
・Both conditions lead to an excess.
・Both conditions lead to a lack or shortage.
・One condition leads to an excess, the other to a shortage.
One Problem, Three [Non-Algebraic] Methods of Solution
Let’s consider one of these excess-and-shortage word problems, looking at how it would normally be solved by elementary math students, who have no training in formal algebra.
Jerry bought some candies for his students. If he gave each student 3 candies, he would have 16 candies left. If he gave each student 5 candies, he would be short of 6 candies. (a) How many students are there? (b) How many candies did Jerry buy?
If the above question were posed as a grade 7 math problem in Singapore, most students would solve it by algebra. However, in lower grades, a model (or intuitive) method is often presented. A survey of Singapore math assessment titles and test papers reveals that there are no fewer than half a dozen problem-solving strategies currently being used by teachers, tutors, and parents. Let’s look at three common methods of solution.
Difference in the number of candies = 5 – 3 = 2
The 16 extra candies are distributed among 16 ÷ 2 = 8 students, and the needed 6 candies among another 6 ÷ 2 = 3 students.
Total number of students = 8 + 3 = 11
(a) There are 11 students.
(b) Number of candies = 3 × 11 + 16 = 49 or 5 × 11 – 6 = 49
Jerry bought 49 candies.
Let 1 unit represent the number of students.
Since the number of candies remains the same in both cases, we have
3 units + 16 = 5 units – 6
From the model,
2 units = 16 + 6 = 22
1 unit = 22 ÷ 2 = 11
3 units + 16 = 3 × 11 + 16 = 49
(a) There are 11 students.
(b) Jerry bought 49 candies.
The difference in the number of candies is 5 – 3 = 2.
The extra 16 candies and the needed 6 candies give a total of 16 + 6 = 22 candies, which are then distributed, so that all students each received 2 extra candies.
The number of students is 22 ÷ 2 = 11.
The number of candies is 11 × 3 + 16 = 49, or 11 × 5 – 6 = 49.
Similar, Yet Different
Feedback from teachers, tutors, and parents suggests that even above-average students are often confused and challenged by the variety of these so-called shortage-and-excess problems, not including word problems that are set at a contest level. This is one main reason why a formulaic recipe may often do more harm than good in instilling confidence in students’ mathematical problem-solving skills.
Here are two grade 4 examples with a twist:
When a carton of apples were packed into bags of 4, there would be 3 apples left over. When the same number of apples were packed into bags of 6, there would still be 3 apples left over. What could be the least number of apples in the carton? (15)
Rose had some money to buy some plastic files. If she bought 12 files, she would need $8 more. If she bought 9 files, she would be left with $5. How much money did Rose have? ($44)
Exposing students of mixed abilities to various types of these excess-and-shortage word problems, and to different methods of solution, will help them gain confidence in, and sharpen, their problem-solving skills. Moreover, promoting non-algebraic (or intuitive) methods also allows these non-routine questions to be set in lower grades, whereby a diagram, or a model drawing, often lends itself easily to the solution.
Chew, T. (2008). Maths olympiad: Unleash the maths olympian in you — Intermediate (Pr 4 & 5, 10 – 12 years old). Singapore: Singapore Asian Publications.
Chew, T. (2007). Maths olympiad: Unleash the maths olympian in you — Beginner (Pr 3 & 4, 9 – 10 years old). Singapore: Singapore Asian Publications.