VOICE FROM THE SOUTH
By FR. EMETERIO BARCELON, SJ
Mathematics is the Waterloo of many a student. When we were young, the Atenean used to boast that he could talk and write but he could not do his math. If he knew his math, he was not an Atenean but a La Sallite. Then the war came and the Ateneo did not open because many of its teachers were Americans. La Salle opened because it had enough German Brothers to run the school. Ateneans then flocked to La Salle. True enough we were at the bottom of the math weekly test. But in three months time, we were up to our La Salle classmates. What was the secret of learning math? The secret was that on Thursdays, our free day, Bro. Romuald was in a classroom ready to take us on, one on one. Math is like a chain and if you miss one link, you cannot pull on it. Each individual student had to solve his problem individually. It cannot be in a class. Each one has his own problems and it has to be solved in a one-on-one tutorial. The La Salle Brothers made the sacrifice to tutor us individually.
I remember I did not have as much a problem as my classmates because I had an uncle, Mr. Ramon Cruz, who rode with us in the car on the way to school and he tutored me. Mathematics, therefore, has to be taught, or at least have its problems solved one-on-one. Problems have to be solved on an individual basis. To repeat, mathematics is like a chain. If one link is missing it has to be repaired before you can pull on it. One of my teachers used to say: “Mathematics is for dummies.” Once you learn how to solve a math problem you do it again and again. It is just repetition. But you must do and understand the math problem the first time. Once you know how to do it, then all the other math problems are just repetitions. But that does not mean that math is unimportant. You need mathematics to do any science. You even have to know your calculus to do any finance. I hope our senior high school students are made to learn geometric algebra and both kinds of calculus. It will make them more confident and make our country better off.
Another characteristic of mathematics is that almost all the great inventions or insights into math were made by teenagers or by the great math geniuses when they were young. I do not know how valid that assertion is. But I am inclined to believe it as true because you need a lot of daring and innovation to tackle mathematical new ideas. We would not have our computers if it were not for mathematical daring. There are many more inventions like the computer that mathematics can open up for us.
I was once in charge of a school. And when I looked at what they were teaching in grade school, I was appalled that they were teaching modern math in grades three and four before the students were comfortable with multiplication and division. I made a compromise with the teachers. We would have targets for each grade and if the students reached their goals for the year, then they could teach modern math or anything they wanted. In two years time the school was winning math contests. (The program was simple: First grade objective is that the students could count: Second grade is for the students to add and subtract. Third grade is for students to do multiplication and division, etc.) Then I found teachers who made mathematics a lot of fun by making all kinds of contests. The students enjoyed math class. Again the important thing is for every student to get to those objectives. Every student must be helped individually until he is confident to do the mathematical procedure. Each student will have his own blocks not only the slow ones. Again math is a chain and no link in the chain must be missing; otherwise math becomes a nightmare. Whatever he does he cannot pull on the chain. The link has to be repaired before the math becomes enjoyable. There are items in math that just have to be memorized, like the multiplication table.
I pity the students whose problems were not solved with individual tutoring. Math becomes a nightmare. The problem is often with the teachers. I once had a seminar for Physics teachers for high school. Then we found some of the teachers did not know how to do long division. Now we have calculators but even with that, the teachers need to know how to do their long division. The other end is when the teachers who want to show off their studies in modern math. The important thing is for each student, whether quick or slow, to be able to do the mathematical procedures.
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