Too much, too early

I REFER to the report in The Star (“Get students to love Maths, teachers told”, Aug 13), where Education Director-General Datuk Abdul Rafie Mahat said teachers must move away from the old school of teaching Mathematics by getting students to memorise multiplication tables and mathematical formulae. “Now we want students to understand what they are learning,” he said. 

Indeed, mathematics is more than memorising facts. By just memorising formulae and not understanding the concepts, one cannot solve mathematical problems.  

You need to understand the concepts before you can apply the formulae to solve the problems. 

Often, application is the problem. As an upper secondary Mathematics teacher, I often wonder why many Form Five students don't know their multiplication tables, and don't know how to add simple fractions like 1/2 + 2/3, deal with decimal numbers and solve simple equations.  

Let's not talk about understanding and applying complicated formulae in complex problem-solving. One needs to be grounded in basic arithmetic before one can attempt mathematics! 

Now that I have children in primary school I can see how uncoordinated and incompatible the primary and secondary school syllabi are. While Science and Mathematics taught in secondary school seems to be getting simpler, these two subjects are getting more difficult in primary school. 

For example, in Year Three, children are expected to solve complicated algebraic equations instead of being grounded in simple equations like 15 - X = 3 + 4. 

In Year Two, eight-year-olds are expected to learn multiplication tables from two through nine, and solve fairly difficult problems involving multiplication and division, all in one go.  

The primary school science syllabus is even more demanding. Children are expected to answer questions that involve secondary school-level experiments when they have never conducted those experiments or watched their teachers do them at school. 

Before they know how to set up an experiment, make their own observations, collect their own data and formulate their own conclusions, 10-year-olds are given experiments whereby they are required to interpret the tabulated data and write out the “constant variables”,”manipulated variables” and “dependent variables”, for which simpler terms could be used. 

And before they are taught how to plot their own graphs, using perhaps their own experiment results, they have to know how to read line graphs, bar charts, pie charts and interpret them in order to answer the questions posed. 

I am now more sympathetic towards weaker students, who are really unfortunate victims of a poorly thought out primary school syllabus. With automatic promotion, if one is left behind, one will never be able to catch up at the next level.  

The primary school syllabus is jumping the gun trying to cram too much information, leaving many children helpless and hopeless as things get more and more difficult with each passing year. 

Hence, primary schools are producing many uneducated people, in spite of six years of what is supposed to be basic primary education. And what can secondary school teachers do?  

We certainly can't teach them Form Five work. So we do the best we can, by teaching them basic arithmetic – what they should have learnt and mastered in primary school. 



Taiping, Perak 

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