Tag Archives: problem-solving heuristics

Hungry ghosts don’t do Singapore math

In Singapore, every year around this time, folks who believe in hungry ghosts celebrate the one-month-long “Hungry Ghost Festival” (also known as the “Seventh Month”). The Seventh Month is like an Asian equivalent of Halloween, extended to one month—just spookier.

If you think that these spiritual vagabonds encircling the island are mere fictions or imaginations of some superstitious or irrational local folks who have put their blind faith in them, you’re in for a shock. These evil spirits can drive the hell out of ghosts agnostics, including those who deny the existence of such spiritual beings.

Picture

Hell money superstitious [or innumerate] folks can buy for a few bucks to pacify the “hungry ghosts.”

During the fearful Seventh Month, devotees would put on hold major life decisions, be it about getting married, purchasing a house, or signing a business deal. If you belong to the rational type, there’s no better time in Singapore to tie the knot (albeit there’s no guarantee that all your guests would show up on your D-Day); in fact, you can get the best deal of the year if your wedding day also happens to fall on a Friday 13—an “unlucky date” in an “unlucky month.”

Problem solving in the Seventh Month

I have no statistical data of the number of math teachers, who are hardcore Seventh Month disciples, who would play it safe, by going on some “mathematical fast” or diet during this fearful “inaupicious month.” As for the rest of us, let’s not allow fear, irrationality, or superstition to paralyze us from indulging into some creative mathematical problem solving.

Let’s see how the following “ghost” word problem may be solved using the Stack Method, a commonly used problem-solving strategy, slowing gaining popularity among math educators outside Singapore (which has often proved to be as good as, if not better than, the bar method in a number of problem-situations).

During the annual one-month-long Hungry Ghost Festival, a devotee used 1/4 and $45 of the amount in his PayHell account to buy an e-book entitled That Place Called Hades. He then donated 1/3 and $3 of the remaining amount to an on-line mortuary, whose members help to intercede for long-lost wicked souls. In the end, his PayHell account showed that he only had $55 left. How much money did he have at first?

Try solving this, using the Singapore model, or bar, method, before peeking at the quick-and-dirty stack-method solutions below.

Picture

From the stack drawing,
2 units = 55 + 13 + 15 + 15 = 98
4 units = 2 × 98 = 196

He had $196 in his PayHell account at first.

Alternatively, we may represent the stack drawing as follows:

Picture

From the model drawing,
2 units = 15 + 15 + 13 + 55 = 98
4 units = 2 × 98 = 196

The devotee had $196 in his account at first.

Another way of solving the “ghost question” is depicted below.

Picture

From the stack drawing,
6u = 55 + 13 + 15 + 15 = 98
12u = 2 × 98 = 196

He had $196 in his PayHell account at first.

A prayerful exercise for the lost souls

Let me end with a “wicked problem” I initially included in Aha! Math, a recreational math title I wrote for elementary math students. My challenge to you is to solve this rate question, using the Singapore bar method; better still, what about using the stack method? Happy problem solving!

Picture

How would you use the model, or bar, method to solve this “wicked problem”?
Reference
Yan, K. C. (2006). Aha! math! Singapore: SNP Panpac Education. 
© Yan Kow Cheong, August 28, 2013.

Picture

A businessman won this “lucky” urn with a $488,888 bid at a recent Hungry Ghost Festival auction.

A Before-and-After Singapore Math Problem

Picture

A Singapore math primer for grades 4–6 students, teachers, and parents

In Model Drawing for Challenging Word Problems, one of the better Singapore math primers to have been written by a non-Singaporean author for an American audience in recent years, under “Whole Numbers,” Lorraine Walker exemplified the following before-and-after problem, as we commonly call it in Singapore.

Mary had served $117, but her sister Suzanne had saved only $36. After they both earned the same amount of money washing dishes one weekend, Mary noticed she had twice as much money as Suzanne. What was the combined total they earned by doing dishes?

The solution offered is as follows:

Picture

© 2010 Crystal Springs Books

The author shared that she did two things to make the model look much clearer:

• To add color in the “After” model;
• To slide the unit bars to the right.

This is fine if students have easy access to colored pens, and know which parts to shift, but in practice this may not always be too convenient or easy, especially if the question gets somewhat more complicated.Let me share a quick-and-dirty solution how most [elementary math] teachers and tutors in Singapore would most likely approach this before-and-after problem if they were in charge of a group of average or above-average grades 4–5 students.

Picture

From the model drawing,

1 unit = $117 – $36 = $81
1 unit – $36 = $81 – $36 = $45

2 × $45 = $90

They earned a total of $90 by doing dishes.

Analysis of the model method

Notice that the placement of the bars matters—whether a bar representing an unknown quantity is placed before or after another bar representing a known quantity.

In our model, had we placed the [shaded] bar representing the unknown unit on the right, it would have been harder to deduce the relationship straightaway; besides, no sliding or shifting is necessary. So, placing the bar correctly helps us to figure out the relationship between the unknown unit and the known quantities easier and faster.

In general, shading and dotting the bars are preferable to coloring and sliding them, especially when the problem gets harder, with more than two conditions being involved.

The Stack Method

This word problem also lends itself very well to the Stack Method. In fact, one can argue that it may even be a better method of solution than the bar model, especially among visually inclined below-average students.

Take a look at a quick-and-dirty stack solution below, which may look similar to the bar method, but conceptually they involve different thinking processes. To a novice, it may appear that the stack method is just the bar method being depicted vertically, but it’s not. Perhaps in this question, the contrast isn’t too obvious, but for harder problems, the stack method can be seen to be more advantageous, offering a more elegant solution than the traditional bar method.

Picture

From the stack model diagram, note that the difference $81(= $117 – $36) must stand for the extra unit belonging to Mary.

1 unit = $81
$36 + ▅ = $81
▅ = $81 – $36 = $45
2 ▅ = 2 × $45 = $90

So, they had a total of $90.

The Sakamoto Method

This before-and-after problem also lends itself pretty well to the Sakamoto method, if the students have already learned the topic on Ratio. Try it out!

Let me leave you with three practice questions I lifted up from a set of before-and-after grades 4–6 problems I plan to publish in a new title I’m currently working on, all of which encourage readers to apply both the bar and the stack methods (and the Sakamoto method, if they’re familiar with it) to solving them.

Practice

Use the model and the stack methods to solve these questions.

1. At first, Joseph had $900 and Ruth had $500. After buying the same watch, Joseph has now three times as much money as Ruth. How much did the watch cost?

2. Moses and Aaron went shopping with a total of $170. After Moses spent 3/7 of his money and Aaron spent $38, they had the same amount of money left. How much money had Aaron at first?

3. Paul and Ryan went on a holiday trip with a total of $280. After Paul had spent 4/7 of his money and Ryan had spent $52, the amount Paul had left was 1/4 of what Ryan had left. How much money did Ryan have at first?

Answers
1. $300 2. $86 3. $196

Reference
Walker, L. (2010). Model drawing for challenging word problems: Finding solutions the Singapore way. Peterborough, NH: Crystal Springs Books.

© Yan Kow Cheong, August 4, 2013.

Problem Solving Made Difficult

Picture

The US edition of a grade 5 Singapore math supplementary title.

Recently, while revising a grade 5 supplementary book I wrote for Marshall Cavendish, I saw that other than the answer, there was no solution or hint provided to the following question.

If Ann gave $2 to Beth, Beth would have twice as much as Ann.
If Beth gave $2 to Ann, they would have the same amount of money.
How much did each person have?

Most grade 7 Singapore math textbooks and assessment books would normally carry a few of these typical word problems, whereby students are expected to use an algebraic method to solve them. For instance, using algebra, students would form two linear equations in x and y, before solving them by the elimination, or substitution, method. A pretty standard application of solving a pair of simultaneous linear equations, by an analytic method.

However, it’s not uncommon to see these types of word problems appearing in lower-grade supplementary titles, whereby students could solve them, using the Singapore model, or bar, method; and the Sakamoto method. In other words, these grade 7 and 8 questions could be solved by grade 5 and 6 students, using a non-algebraic method.

Algebra versus Model Drawing

Conceptually speaking, I think a grade 6 or 7 student who can solve the above word problem, using a model drawing, appears to exhibit a higher level of mathematical maturity than one who simply uses two variables to represent the unknowns, before forming two simultaneous linear equations to solve them. Of course, because the numbers in this question are relatively small, it’s not surprising to catch a number of average students relying on the trial-and-error method to find the answer.

Try to solve the question, using both algebra and a model; then compare the two methods of solution. Which one do you think demands a deeper or higher level of reasoning or thinking skills?

Depicted below is a model drawing of the above grade 5 word problem.

Picture

From the model drawing,

1 unit = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 8
1 unit + 2 = 10
1 unit + 6 = 14

Ann had $10.
Beth had $14.

Generalizing the Problem

A minor change in the question, by altering the “number of times” Beth would have as much money as Ann, reveals an interesting pattern: the model drawing remains unchanged, except for the varying number of units that represent the same quantity.Here are two modified versions of the original grade 5 question.

If Ann gave $2 to Beth, Beth would have three times as much as Ann.

If Beth gave $2 to Ann, they would have the same amount of money.
How much did each person have?

Answer: Ann–$6; Beth–$10.

If Ann gave $2 to Beth, Beth would have five times as much as Ann.
If Beth gave $2 to Ann, they would have the same amount of money.
How much did each person have?

Answer: Ann–$4; Beth–$8.

From Problem Solving to Problem Posing

The two modified questions could serve as good practice for students to become skilled in model drawing, and to help them deduce numerical relationships confidently from them. Besides, they provide a good opportunity to challenge students to pose similar questions, by altering the “number of times” Beth would have as much money as Ann. Which numerical values would work, and what ones wouldn’t, in order for the model drawing to make sense, or for the question to remain solvable?

Conclusion

Let me end, by tickling you with another grade 5 question, similar to the previous three word problems.

If Ann gave $2 to Beth, Beth would have three times as much as Ann.
If Beth gave $2 to Ann, they would have twice as much money as Beth.
How much did each person have?

Answer: Ann–$4.40; Beth–$5.20.

How do you still use the model method to solve this slightly modified ratio question? Test it on your better students or colleagues! It’s slightly harder, because any obvious result isn’t easily deduced from the model drawing, as compared to the ones posed earlier on. Besides, unlike the three previous word problems whose answers are integers, this last problem has a decimal answer—it just doesn’t lend itself well to the guess-and-check strategy.

Share with us how your students or colleagues fare on this last question. Remember: No algebra allowed!

© Yan Kow Cheong, July 12, 2013.

The legitimacy of the bar method

Picture

“In Step Maths” grades 1-6 used to be a popular series among local schools—a far more user-friendly series than the “My Pals Are Here” and ‘Math in Focus” series.

During this haziest and most polluted week in Singapore, while looking out for some teaching tips in some dated teaching guides, I came across the following grade 3 Singapore math question, which looks more like a grade 5 question to me:

A number represented by the letter B, divided by 6 and then added to 6, gives the same answer as when the same number B is divided by 9 and then added to 9. What is the number B?

How would you solve it, using the Singapore model, or bar, method? Give it a try before peeping at the solution below, which is the one given in the guide. Would you accept the teacher’s guide’s solution as one that effectively uses the power of the bar model in arriving at the answer?

Picture

A bar-modeled solution to the above grade 3 word problem.

Is there an abuse or misuse of the bar method?

Personally, I’m not too comfortable with the given solution, as I feel it lacks some legitimacy in the effective use of the bar method in arriving at the answer. What do you think? Do you sense a misuse or abuse of the visualization strategy? How would you use the bar method, or any non-algebraic method, in solving this question? Share your thoughts with us on whether the bar method has legitimately been applied to solve this grade 3 word problem.

Reference
Gunasingham, V. (2004). In Step Maths Teacher’s Guide 3A. Singapore: SNP Panpac Pte Ltd.

© Yan Kow Cheong, June 21, 2013.

Is Singapore math frickin’ hard?

There is a millennium myth that Singapore math is hard or tough—that only geeks from some remote parts of Asia (or from some red little dot on the world map) should do it. The mass media (and math educators, too) have implicitly mythologized that those who are presently struggling with school math, should avoid Singapore math, in whatever form it’s being presented, totally. A grave mistake, indeed!

Is Singapore math a mere fad?

After reading dozens of tweets and blog posts on the pluses and minuses of Singapore math, it sounds as if Singapore math has a certain mystique around it—some kind of foreign math bestowed by some creatures from outer space to terrorize those who wished math were an optional subject in elementary school.

Not to say, folks who totally reject Singapore math on the basis that it’s just another fad in math education, or another marketing gimmick to promote an allegedly “better foreign curriculum” to math educators. They believe that “back-to-basics math,” whatever that phrase means to them, with all its memorizing and drill-and-kill exercises, is a necessary mathematical evil to get kids to learn arithmetic.

Singapore math OR/AND Everyday Math

Singapore math? Sure, no problem! It’s no big deal!

Well, it’s a big deal for traditional publishers, which may lose tons of money if more states and schools continue to embrace this “foreign brand” of math education.

Poor writing and teaching from a number of us could have indirectly contributed to the white lie that if you can’t cope with Everyday Math or Saxon Math, or whatever math textbook your school or state is currently using, Singapore math is worse! You might as well forget about it!

Picture

One of the first few Singapore supplementary titles to promote the model method in the mid-nineties.

The bar method as a powerful problem-solving strategy

Objectively speaking, Singapore math doesn’t come close to most pedagogical insights or creative ideas featured in journals and periodicals published by the MAA and the NTCM. Personally, I must admit that I become a better teacher, writer, and editor, thanks to these first-class publications. The Singapore model method, although a key component of the Singapore math curriculum, is just one of the problem-solving strategies we use every day, as part of our problem-solving toolkit.

On the other hand, for vested interests on the part of some publishers, little has been done to promote other problem-solving strategies, such as the Stack Method and the Sakamoto method, which are as powerful, if not more elegant, than the bar method—in fact, more and more local students and teachers are using them as they see their advantages over the model method in a number of problem situations.

Picture

Fabien Ng in his heyday was a household name in mathematics education in Singapore—it looks like he’s since almost disappeared from the local publishing scene.

Don’t throw out the mathematical baby yet!

You may not wish to adopt the Singapore math curriculum, or even part of it; but at least consider the model and stack methods, not to say, the Sakamoto method, as part of your arsenal of problem-solving strategies (or heuristics, as we call them here). Don’t let traditional publishers (or “math editors” with a limited repertoire of problem-solving strategies) prevent you from acquiring new mathematical tools to improve your mathematical problem-solving skills.

In Singapore, the model, or bar, method is formally taught until grade six to solve a number of word problems, because from grade seven onwards, we want the students to switch over to algebra. However, this doesn’t mean that we’d totally ban the use of the model method in higher grades, because in a number of cases, the model or stack method often offers a more elegant or intuitive method of solution than its algebraic counterpart.

© Yan Kow Cheong, May 27, 2013.

Picture

A booklet comprising of PSLE (grade 6) past exam papers, which cost me only 88 cents in the eighties.

A Singapore Grade Two Tricky Question

A classic elementary math problem that folks from a number of professions, from psychologists to professors to priests like to ask is the following:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. 
The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. 
How much does the ball cost?

For novice problem solvers, the immediate, intuitive answer is 10 cents. Yet the correct response is 5 cents. Why is that so?

If the ball is 10 cents, then the bar has to cost $1.10, which totals $1.20. Why do most of us jump to the wrong conclusion—that the ball costs 10 cents?

We should expect few students to bother checking whether the intuitive answer of 10 cents could possibly be wrong. Research by Professor Shane Frederick (2005) finds that this is the most popular answer even among bright college students, be they from MIT or Harvard.

A few years ago, I included a similar question for a grade 2 supplementary title, as it was in vogue in some local text papers. See the question below.

Recently, while revising the book, I saw that the model drawing had been somewhat modified by the editor. Although a model drawing would likely help a grade 2 child to better visualize what is happening, however, a better shading, or the use of a dotted line, would have made the model easier to understand. Can you improve the model drawing?

Picture

Try to solve the above question in a different way, using the same model drawing.

Interestingly, I find out that even after warning students of the danger of simply accepting the obvious answer, or reminding them of the importance of checking their answer, variations of the above question do not seem to help them improve their scores. I recently tickled my Fan page readers with the following mathematical trickie.

Two cousins together are 11. 
One is 10 years older than the other. 
Find out how old both of them are.

Let me end with this Cognitive Reflection Test (CTR), which is made up of tricky questions whose answers tend to trap the unwary, and which may be suitably given to problem solvers in lower grades.

1. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 bearings, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 bearings?

2. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

3. A frog is climbing up a wall which is 12 m high. Every day, it climbs up 3 m but slips down 2 m. How many days will it take the frog to first reach the top of the wall?

4. A cyclist traveled from P to Q at 20 km/h, and went back at 10 km/h. What is his average speed for the entire journey?

5. It costs $5 to cut a log into 6 pieces. How much will it cost to cut the log into 12 pieces?

Expected incorrect answers

1. 100 minutes. 2. 24 days. 3. 12 days. 4. 15 km/h 5. $10

Correct answers

References

Donnelly, R. (2013). The art of thinking clearly. UK: Sceptre.

Yan, K. C. (2012). Mathematical quickies & trickies. Singapore: MathPlus Publishing.

Postscript: What’s your CTR score? Here is something to ponder about: Those with a high CTR score are often atheists; those with low CTR results tend to believe in God or some deity.

© Yan Kow Cheong, May 7, 2013.

Picture

For practice on the Singapore model method, this title may help—visit Singaporemath.com

 

The Dolls Problem à la Singapour

Following a request from a Linkedln friend to provide a solution that makes use of the Singapore model method to the question below—I couldn’t trace the origin of this word problem—here’s a quick-and-dirty sketch of a five-model-drawing solution.

Jazmine buys and sells antique dolls on the Internet. Yesterday, she focused on dolls from the Civil War period. She began the day by selling one-fourth of her dolls from that period. Then she sold six more. Just before lunch she sold one-fourth of the remaining Civil War dolls. After lunch, she bought some Civil War dolls, increasing her collection by one-sixth. Then she bought some more, doubling her collection. Just before she quit for the day, she sold two thirds of her Civil War dolls. After all that, she had fourteen of these dolls left. How many dolls did Jazmine have before she began trading yesterday?

It wouldn’t be surprising that this kind of brain-unfriendly word problem, set in a test or exam, might give some un-mathophobic grade five or six students sweaty palms, or goose pimples, if they started feeling clueless after attempting to solve it for some five odd minutes!

Picture

A quick-and-dirty solution that makes use of the model method.

Using the “work backwards” strategy repeatedly, the model drawings show that Jazmine had 40 dolls before she began trading yesterday.

If you’re an “algebraic freak,” by all means, use algebra to check your answer—I decided to give the algebraic approach a miss this time round.

Disproportionate parts or units

Notice that I’ve loosely used “units” and “parts” alternately to represent each model drawing. And I’ve also used each unit, or part, in a rather disproportionate manner, as compared to textbooks’ modeled solutions, which generally depict the bars (or rectangles) proportionately, based on their respective numerical values—which is secondary to the reasoning or thinking processes.

The above dolls problem is similar to a question I discussed in an earlier post, except that the present one is slightly harder; otherwise, it adopts the same problem-solving strategies for  its solution.

Sakamoto and Stack Methods

My next task is to check whether the Stack method or the Sakamoto method to the above word problem is conceptually “friendlier” than the model method. Are there intuitive or elegant solutions other than the one that embraces the bar method? Meanwhile, please send us your solution(s) to the dolls problem.

© Yan Kow Cheong, March 27, 2013.

Postscript: Although math was my favorite subject in school, I don’t recall solving questions similar to the above word problem. I doubt if I would be able to solve it when I was in grade five or six. It looks like this present younger generation has been given the shorter end of the mathematical stick—worse, if math happens not to be their cup of tea! It’s no surprise that strangers, young and old, angrily tell me of their negative mathematical experiences in school—how they disliked math (and their math teachers).