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The Joy of Learning Mathematics
For many students, math is a phobia along with the fear of snakes, lizards, elevators, water, flying, public speaking, and heights. Although the “disease” is neither genetic nor infectious, they “inherit” it from their parents; and “catch” it from their friends. What are the reasons for the terrible reputation of mathematics that divides society into “haves” and “have-nots” in mathematics?
“One of the reasons students do poorly in math is that they learn it mechanically, often not understanding what they are learning and being unable to apply it to real-life situations,” explains Vijay Kulkarni, editor of the First Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published recently by the well-known non-governmental organization based in Bombay, Pratham.
Explaining the dismal scenario described by the report, particularly with regard to math – 42% of children aged seven to ten cannot subtract – Kulkarni says children are discouraged because strict conventional education in classrooms class has suppressed the joy of learning, turning schools into robotic factories.
Outdated teaching methods and an outdated curriculum – far removed from students’ daily experiences – do nothing to contribute to a student’s appreciation of the subject. Intelligence is often measured by the grades he gets in math, and his self-confidence is eroded when he is called an idiot for getting fewer marks.
Yet taught in the right way, learning math can be easy, fun, and can fill a sense of awe, with its inherently beautiful harmony and order. Parents and teachers need to send the message that learning math can be fun. Their expressions of interest, sense of wonder and enjoyment are essential to the child’s interest in the subject.
“Parents are a child’s first mentors. Even before children can be officially admitted to preschool kindergartens, they can start playing with numbers,” suggests Dr. MJ Thomas, a child psychologist in the city. Children are playful by nature and have an irrepressible curiosity to explore the world by experimenting with the objects around them: seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, smelling and arranging objects, assembling or disassembling them. Through such an experience, children intuitively understand their world.
Suggestions from Dr. Thomas: Collect beads of different colors and tell the children to alternately string two beads of, say, two colors. Tell them to bring red and green balls and make two piles of an equal number of balls. Another game might be to arrange the playing cards in rows of three or four. These activities can reinforce quantitative thinking and help make numbers our friend.
“While the other sciences have a certain amount of practical activities included in the curriculum and the idea of a physics, chemistry or biology laboratory is common, mathematics is still only taught by the method of chalk and speech,” says Dr SNGananath, an Ashoka Fellowship recipient for Innovations in Activity-Based Mathematics Education. “This is particularly unfortunate because a subject like math can only be understood when a child experiences, first-hand, the idea of weight and volume, shape and size, number and pattern,” says -he.
Dr. Gananath has designed math kits, with charts, diagrams and games, to explain various difficult math concepts, such as place value, fractions or decimals. He takes a piece of paper, marks the lengths a and b and in a few minutes, by folding the paper properly, arrives at formulas for (a+b) 2 and (ab)2. Such activity-based teaching stimulates thinking, encourages discussion or finding other ways to solve problems. On the other hand, traditional teaching in schools seems to give the impression that there is only one way to solve a given problem.
“Learning does not just mean ‘knowing’ the facts, but understanding the underlying concepts rooted in experience,” says HNParmesh, director of born free, a public school in the village of Banjarpalya, near the Banaglore-Mysore road. His school has the rare distinction of all students obtaining first class in the VII standard public examination for several consecutive years. Parmesh and his team of dedicated teachers have used inexpensive materials like matchboxes and colorful baked clay beads to make teaching aids they say have helped slow learners understand math better.
Several organizations like the Akshara Foundation and the Azim Premji Foundation, with the support of corporate bigwigs, collaborated with the government and used computers to capture the attention of bored rural children and stimulate their curiosity and imagination. However, using the computer effectively to support teaching is not an easy task. It needs good planning and design; otherwise, it can become an expensive replacement for rote learning, if all it does is replace dull text with colorful animations.
Computing can be used in innovative ways to usher in interactive learning, as has been attempted by Oracle Education Foundationwho designed a web-based educational environment – think.com for teachers and students in Bangalore and elsewhere. This allowed students and teachers to create personal web pages and communicate or chat with each other through message boards and email. The website made students more creative and teachers more responsive and accessible to students.
Games and puzzles are a sure way to aid learning. As children, we wondered the riddle: a goat, a tiger, and a clump of grass must be carried across a river in a boat that can only carry one of the three at a time. Since the goat will eat the grass and the tiger will eat the goat if left alone, how would you take them one by one and save their lives? There is a similar exercise in logical thinking in the classic example of a village with two tribes – one always telling the truth and the other always telling lies. When you reach a point where the road splits into two paths, one leading to treasure and the other to death, you see one member of each tribe. If you are allowed to ask only one question to one of them, who will you ask and what will you ask, in order to obtain the treasure?
Riddles like this will initiate a lot of discussion. And the lessons learned will not be easily forgotten; they will be applied when a similar situation occurs.
Learning must be guided by generalized principles in order to discover problem-solving strategies. Knowledge learned by memory is rarely transferred to new situations, even if they are similar.
Teacher-centric classrooms where the teacher dominates the scene are soon to be a thing of the past. Teachers should be facilitators of learning; they should stimulate thinking, which would lead to self-discovery, so that the child experiences the pure joy of learning.
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