Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Art of Reasoning

It has been said that students in Chinese schools are generally good in maths when compared to their peers from non-Chinese schools. On paper, I'm inclined to agree with this general view. I'm sure many, many people agree with this view too.

In Malaysia, a number of those students from the Chinese schools will eventually pursue their studies in non-Chinese schools and higher-learning institutions, and inevitably they will compete with students whom are without Chinese education background. Such was the case when I was in Form 6 many years ago. What I realised was that the students originating from Chinese schools were indeed good in maths, but when it came to applied maths, they were not necessarily better than those from non-Chinese schools. In fact, in some cases, they were weaker!

My daughter, JJ, is studying in a Chinese school since Primary 1. She is now in Primary 6. I'm planning to put her in a non-Chinese school when she goes to Form 1 next year. The main reason why I put her in a Chinese school is to learn Mandarin. Mandarin is a useful language in the business world, and it is widely accepted that it will become increasingly important in time to come.

When JJ was in Primary 1, her mommy sent her to the so-called mental arithmetic class. The concept behind the mental arithmetic system is that the students are taught how to use the abacus, an ancient calculation device popularly used by the Chinese. They are trained by repetitive use of the abacus, over and over again, to such an extent that they're eventually able to visualize the device in their mind. When faced with mathematical questions, they would count on the abacus in their mind, all the while "seeing" the device through some sort of photographic memory. In a way, it is something like playing chess when considering possible moves, and move orders in the mind.

If the kid is well trained in the mental arithmetic mentioned above, he will soon become an expert at it. I have heard of people describing the ability as "lightning speed", "walking calculator", "living computer" and the likes. If you are not convinced this is possible, check out this video clip. These kids are so impressive in their speed of calculations.

Nevertheless, I'm not a big fan of the mental arithmetic approach of learning maths. So you will not be surprised that I stopped JJ from continuing her abacus lessons just a few months after she started. I noticed something peculiar about many of my classmates from the Chinese schools in Form 6—many of them lacked the skill of reasoning things out in a logical manner. Yes, they were fast in calculations, but mathematical problems are not only about speed and memory work. A great deal of maths has something to do with logic and requires reasoning in order to solve. That was why they struggled in applied maths.

This thing about the emphasis on speed and memory is a good thing, but not to be over-emphasized to eclipse the art of reasoning. The reality is that, life is not a text book that has a fixed set of problems that we can commit to memory. If one over-develops the speed and memory aspects of the learning process at the expense of neglecting to develop the art of reasoning, my view is that he will end up being the perfect employee, but he has little prospects to be the employer.

Children have the tendency to quickly form a habit in whatever they do. If they are too comfortable in memorizing and "seeing" the abacus in their mind, then that will also become the approach in whatever else they do.

Mathematics—I mean the real essence of it—requires logical thinking, not the mere skill of counting on the abacus. In fact, most other things in life require logical thinking too. Furthermore, one can count equally accurately and fast in the modern working place with the aid of calculators and computers. These are very common modern day gadgets that secondary schools these days allow the use of calculators in exams, so that speed in mental arithmetic is not necessarily a big plus. Well, at least not to me. I'd rather teach my daughter to reason out her problems and then solve it in a logical manner; not merely seeing a device in her head, use it to arrive at a conclusion but without really appreciating why that is the answer.

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