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?
© Yan Kow Cheong, July 4, 2014.