Math educators, especially stressed [often self-inflicted] local teachers in Singapore, are always on the look-out for something funny or humorous to spice up their oft-boring math lessons. At least, this is the general feeling I get when I meet up with fellow teachers, who seem to be short of fertile resources; however, most are dead serious to do whatever it takes to make their teaching lessons fun and memorable.
It’s often said that local Singapore math teachers are the world’s most hardworking (and arguably the world’s “most qualified” as well)—apparently, they teach the most number of hours, as compared with their peers in other countries—but for the majority of them, their drill-and-kill lessons are boring like a piece of wood. It’s as if the part of their brain responsible for creativity and fun had long been atrophied. A large number of them look like their enthusiasm for the subject have extinguished decades ago, and teaching math until their last paycheck seems like a decent job to paying the mortgages and to pampering themselves with one or two dear overseas trips every other year with their loved ones.
Indeed, Singapore math has never been known to be interesting, fun, or creative, at least this is the canned perception of thousands of local math teachers and tutors—they just want to over-prepare their students to be exam-smart and to score well. The task of educating their students to love or appreciate the beauty and power of the subject is often relegated to outsiders (enrichment and olympiad math trainers), who supposedly have more time to enrich their students with their extra-mathematical activities.
Singapore Math via Humor
A prisoner of war in World War II, Sidney Harris is one of the few artists who seems to have got a good grasp of math and science. While school math may not be funny, math needn’t be serious for the rest of us, who may not tell the difference between mathematical writing and mathematics writing, or between ratio and proportion. Let Sidney Harris show you why a lot of things about serious math are dead funny. Mathematicians tend to take themselves very seriously, which is itself a funny thing, but S. Harris shows us through his cartoons how these symbol-minded men and women are a funny awful lot.
Angel: “I’m beginning to understand eternity, but infinity is still beyond me.”
Mathematical humor is a serious (and dangerous) business, which few want to invest their time in, because it often requires an indecent number of man- or woman-hours to put their grey matter to work in order to produce something even half-decently original or creative. The choice is yours: mediocrity or creativity?
Humorously and irreverently yours
Adams, D. S. (2014). Lab math. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
Harris, S. (1970). What’s so funny about science? Los Altos, Ca.: Wm. Kaufmann, Inc.
Check out an inexpensive (but risky) way to make a Singapore math lesson less boring: The Use of Humor in Mathematics. The author would be glad to visit local schools and tuition centers to conduct in-service three-hour math courses for fellow primary and secondary math teachers, who long to bring some humor to their everyday mathematical classrooms—as part of their annual 100 hours professional upgrading. Please use his e-mail coordinates on the Contact page.
In the aftermath of the death of Singapore’s founding father, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015), a number of numerological tidbits (or numerical curiosities, to put it mildly) floated on social media, which got a number of apparently self-professed innumerates pretty excited. Here are three such postings that I saw in my Facebook feed and on WhatsApp.
RIP: Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015)
The WhatsApp message gives the impression that it was the works of some “pseudo-mathematician,” but it could very well have been the digital footprints of a “mathematical crank” or an amateur-numerologist, who wanted to tickle mathophobics with such numerical coincidences.
Did Singapore’s numerologists (or pseudo-mathematicians) fail to point out some of the following numerological absurdities?
The digital root of Mr. Lee’s birth year is 1 + 9 + 2 + 3 = 15, which stands for the last two digits of the year he experienced his last heartbeat.
The pollution index for that week was in an unhealthy range, and the average PSI for the six-day mourning period was about 91.
Or, were there exactly 91 priests on vigil at an undisclosed Roman Catholic Church, who were interceding for Mr. Lee to ensure that his heavenly destination is 100% secured, although his manifold deeds to the nation inarguably exceeds the number of his political faux pas, especially vis-à-vis his political enemies or opponents?
Or, did 91 senior monks and nuns (or did I mistake them for disciples of Shintoism?) resort to “synchronized chanting” to ensure that the highest level of enlightenment be bestowed on the late Mr. Lee, who might be reincarnated as a future Buddha for his numerous selfish deeds towards his oft-ungrateful and unappreciative fellow citizens?
And did any police personnel verify whether there were 91,000 odd mourners in black attire on that Black Sunday, not to say, 91 VIPs or Heads of States who attended the eulogy, depending on one’s definition of a VIP?
The Numerology of the Old Guard
One Facebook numerological factoid that circulated in the first post-LKY week was the following:
At face value, these nonagenarians had their blessed lives prolonged up to “four scores and ten and one” years. Sounds like their good earthly or political deeds were good karma for their longetivity? Are they the recipients of the following success equation?
Sacrifice + Service + Incorruptibility + Risk = Political Success + Longevity
Observe that simply taking the difference between the birth year and the death year of Mr. S Rajaratnam suggests that he died at the age of 91; however, if we look closely at the month dates (Feb. 25, 1915 – Feb. 22, 2006), he was still 90 years old, when he passed away. The same argument goes for Dr. Toh Chin Chye (Dec. 10, 1921 – Feb. 3, 2012), who wasn’t yet 91, when he died. So, always take the pseudoscience of numerology with a grain of salt. As with fengshui charlatans, a degree of skepticism towards numerologists of all sizes and shapes isn’t an option—wear your critical-thinking cap when meeting, or reading about, these paranormal folks!
Fortune via Misfortune—From 4D to 5C
To rational non-punters or non-gamblers, betting on someone’s death date, whether he or she was poor or rich on this side of eternity, seems like an extreme case of bad taste, or simply showing zero respect for the deceased and their family members. However, in superstitious circles, that practice isn’t uncommon among mathematically challenged or superstitious punters, who think that bad luck paranormally translates into good omen, if they bet on the digits derived from the death date or age of a recently deceased person.
In fact, during the nation’s six-day mourning period for its founder, besides the long queues of those who wanted to pay their last respects to Mr. Lee at the Parliament House, another common sight islandwide were meters-long lines of 4D or TOTO punters, who wanted to cash in on the “lucky digits” to retire prematurely, hoping to lay hold of the traditional 5Cs (cash, car, condo, credit card, country club), coveted by hundreds of thousands of materialistic Singaporeans.
Number Theory over Numerology
Instead of promoting a numerological or pseudoscientific gospel based on Mr. Kuan Yew’s death date or age, which only helps to propagate superstition and pseudoscience, perhaps a “mathematically healthy” exercise would be to leverage on the D-day to teach our students and their parents some basic numerical properties—for example, conducting a recreational math session on “Number Theory 101” for secondary 1–4 (or grades 7–10) students might prove more meaningful or fruitful than dabbling in some numerological prestidigitation, or unhealthy divination.
A Search for Patterns
91 is the product of two primes: 91 = 7 × 13
91 = 1² + 2² + 3² + 4² + 5² + 6²
91 is also the sum of three squares: 1² + 3² + 9²
Are there other ways of writing the number 91 as a sum of squares?
91 = 33 + 43
Non-Numerological Questions to Promote Problem-Solving Skills
Let’s look at an “inauspicious number” of elementary- and middle-school (primary 5–secondary 4) math questions, which could help promote numeracy rather than numerology among students and teachers.
1. Sum of Integers
Show that the number 91 may be represented as the sum of consecutive whole numbers. In how many ways can this be done?
2. The Recurring Decimal
What fraction represents the recurring decimal 0.919191…?
3. Palindromic in Base n
For what base(s) will the decimal number 91 be a palindromic number (a number that reads the same when its digits are reversed)? For example, 91 = 101013.
4. The Billion Heartbeat
Does a 91-year-lifespan last less or more than a billion heartbeats?
5. Day of the Week
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (September 16, 1923–March 23, 2015) died on a Monday. Using the 28-year cycle of the Gregorian calendar, which day of the week was he born?
6. One Equation, Two Variables
If x and y are integers, how many solutions does the equation x² – y² = 91 have?
7. Singapore’s New Orchid
A new orchid—Singapore’s national flower—had been named after Mr. Lee: Aranda Lee Kuan Yew. Using the code A = x, B = x + 1, C = x + 2, …, , does there exist an integer x such that ARANDA sums up to 91? In other words, does there exist a numerological system such that A + R + A + N + D + A = 91?
8. Singapore’s Coin Goes Octal
There is an apocryphal story that had circulated for many years linking Mr. Lee Kuan Yew with Singapore’s octagonal one-dollar coin. A high-ranking monk had apparently told Mr. Lee that Singapore’s fortune would continue to rise only if Singaporeans were to carry a bagua—the eight-sided fengshui symbol. That prediction allegedly prompted the Monetary Authority of Singapore to issue the octagonal shape of the nation’s one-dollar coin.
That rumor was later put to rest by no other than self-declared agnostic Mr. Lee himself in one of his books, Hard Truths. He remarked that he had zero faith in horoscopes, much less the pseudoscience of fengshui.
What is the sum of the interior angles of the Singapore’s eight-sided coin?
9. Show that the largest number k for which the decimal expansion of 2k does not contain the digit 1 is 91.
One Singapore’s problem-solving strategy that is gaining currency among more and more local teachers in Singapore is the Stack Model Method, which has proved to be conceptually more advantageous—a more intuitive and creative strategy—than the bar model method. On a lighter note, let’s look at a dozen benefits one could derive should one fearlessly embrace this visualization problem-solving strategy to solve word problems.
1. As a Form of Therapy
Like bar modeling, getting involved in stack modeling may act as a form of visual therapy, especially among visual learners, and for those who need a diagram or model to make sense of a problem-situation. Indeed, a model drawing is often worth more than a dozen lines of algebraic symbols.
2. A Possible Cure to Dementia
Like Sudoku and crossword puzzles, practicing the science and art of stack modeling may help arrest one’s schizophrenia or dementia, particularly those who fear that their grey matter might play tricks on them in their golden years.
3. Prevention of Visual or Spatial Atrophy
For folks wishing to enhance their visualization skills, stack modeling could potentially turn their worry of short-term visual apathy and long-term visual atrophy into aha! moments of advanced visual literacy.
4. A Disruptive Methodology and Pedagogy
When most Singapore coaches and teachers are no longer excited or thrilled about the Singapore’s model method, what they need is a more powerful and intuitive problem-solving strategy like the stack model method to give them that competitive edge over their peers, all of whom are involved in the business of Singapore math—from training and coaching to consulting and ghostwriting.
5. A Platform for Creative Thinking in Mathematics
Getting acquainted to the stack model method would not only help one to hone one’s visualization skills, but it’ll also refine one’s problem-solving and creative thinking skills. Being mindful that competing stack models could be designed to figure out the answer, the challenge is to come up with the most elegant stack model that could vow even the mathophobics!
6. Look-See Proofs for Kids
Stalk modeling could help remove any “mathematical cataract” from one’s mind’s eye to better “see” how the parts relate to the whole. The way stack models are drawn (up-and-down and sideways) often allows one to see numerical relationships that would otherwise be difficult to visualize if bar models were used instead.
7. The Beauty and Power of Model Diagrams
Even those who are agnostic to the Singapore math curriculum, a “Stack Modeling” lesson could help enliven the beauty and power of model diagrams in creative problem solving. The stack model method could act as a catalyst to “seeing” the connection between parts and whole—normally, the same result would be tediously or boringly derived by analytic or algebraic means, understood only by students in higher grades.
8. A Simple but Not Simplistic Strategy
Like Trial and Error, or Guess and Check, the stack model method shows that Draw a Diagram is a simple, but not simplistic, problem-solving strategy. The stack model reinforces the idea that often “less is more.” The simplicity of a stack model can reveal much hidden information that is often lost in an algebraic argument.
9. A Branded Problem-Solving Strategy
For math educators who might think that Singapore math, or the bar model method, in particular, is a mere fad in mathematics education, the stack model method further disproves that myth. Like bar modeling, stack modeling shows that a simple problem-solving strategy like the “draw a diagram” has what it takes to attaining brand status, especially when we consider the types of challenging word problems that lend themselves to both bar and stack models, and which could also be assigned to a younger audience.
10. Stack Modeling as a Creative Art
To the novice problem solver, stack modeling is a science; to the seasoned problem solver, stack modeling is an art— the challenge is to come up with more than one stack model to arrive at the answer. Remember: Not all stack models are created equal!
11. Earn as You Learn
If you are a mathepreneur, you can easily steal the ideas in The Stack Model Method: An Intuitive and Creative Approach to Solving Word Problems to write a more expensive Singapore math book on the subject. There are dozens of ethically challenged ghost writers and cash-strapped undergrads from China, India, and the Philippines, who can help you professionally plagiarize any types of editable contents! You earn as you learn! Of course, you need to mail them your copy, or buy a new copy for them to do the “creative work” at a fractional cost! Make sure you don’t get caught, though!
12. Green Math à la Singapour
Ecologically speaking, stack modeling, which generally uses less space than bar modeling, could help math educators save millions of ink and square miles of paper [aka trees]. In economic terms, millions of dollars could be saved by the right choice of model drawing. In other words, stack modeling could act as a catalyst to help one play one’s part in reducing one’s carbon footprints!
From Bar to Stack Modeling
With a bit of imagination, I bet you could come up with another dozen benefits of stack modeling. The stack model method is no longer an option, nor should it be treated as a mere visualization strategy to be discussed only during an enrichment math lesson.
The stack method is going to be a problem-solving strategy of choice, as more math educators worldwide invest the time to learn and apply it to solve non-routine questions in elementary math. Be among the first creative problem solvers to embrace the stack model method, as you gain that methodological or pedagogical edge over your fellow math educators!
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.