Solving the mathematics problem in Indian schools

It will be a disaster if we discover, over the next few years, that the youngest nation in the world missed learning mathematics as a life skill

Solving the mathematics problem in Indian schools
In addition, people's internal locus of control, or the extent to which they believe to control their own destiny, was one predictor of who moved out to work (Reuters)

Never before in the history of mankind has the difficulty level of a question paper been a matter of debate in a democratically-elected Parliament. We created history, this year, when the question paper for mathematics of a national school board become a topic of discussion in the highest decision-making body in our country. But then, question papers and exams in India are a matter of life and death, especially if it is mathematics.

Mathematics, or maths, continues to be the passport of success. No wonder, students create furore when educators throw difficult questions at them without sufficient warning. So, what ails maths education in India?

Vague: One of the key reasons why maths is not a preferred subject is that it is just too vague. It does not link to any day-to-day maths problems, and students find learning it a difficult chore. Take calculus, for example. Most students won’t probably ever use it, but it is still taught. However, how to write a simple formula to double your money in six years is not taught.

Lack of innovation: There has been hardly any innovation in the way maths as a subject is taught. Typically, a maths class begins with a review of the previous day’s homework. Followed by one very difficult question taken up by the teacher, who would then solve it on the board. The expectation is that by solving the most difficult question, you are at least ensuring that students would garner marks to clear the final exam. There is no reference to the concepts or the method for solving the problem.

Obsession with correct answers: There is an over-obsession with all of us to get that one ‘right answer’ for all sums. It results in limiting the learner’s focus to one algorithm learnt to achieve that one answer. There is no effort to encourage alternate approaches to solve problems or critical thinking.

Balance in curriculum: Critical maths concepts are taught at the secondary level, especially at class XI and XII. However, our curriculum, instead of focusing on building these key skills, ends up focusing on training students for appearing in entrance exams for graduate studies. Key concepts taught in class XI never get assessed. Almost 50% of class XII maths curriculum is devoted to calculus, which most students any way would never use it in their life.

Multiple threads: The way maths curriculum is designed is there are multiple building blocks at each level. Most of these are a prerequisite to learning the next modules. But there are just too many paths at all levels. So, for example, you begin learning elementary set theory, and before you realise, you are trying to solve a probability problem. Students find it difficult to make up these, if they miss any critical chapters. Eventually, they stop liking maths as a subject.

Pedagogy: There is too much of a fixation with computational abilities rather than encouraging application of a solution. Very rarely are opportunities given to students to visualise a problem, explore or encourage discovery as a medium to finding a solution. As a result, students mostly look for a quick-fix ‘formula’ rather than find applications towards a problem statement.

High focus on content, ignoring the process: Very little focus is made on the process of learning maths. The content is positioned as hierarchical and linkages of one chapter to another are rarely done. Students end up moving from one chapter to another without understanding the process at all.

Rote learning: Teachers encourage rote learning and incentivise if students submit quick responses. It is the fastest-finger-first approach. Out-of-the-box responses are discouraged. There is no teaching of heuristics and other problem-solving strategies to solve non-routine problems either.

Poor course-ware: Most maths textbooks are boringly designed. There are no or very little graphics, colours or modern instructional design applications in most textbooks. Missing also is the prose from mathematical problems. Prose as text to mathematical problems builds visualisation and encourages students to find solutions from multiple ways. Most mathematical problems at school level are cryptic.

Lack of technology: There is no encouragement for using technology for solving maths problems. The objective is not to use technology, say a calculator or a spreadsheet to solve a problem quickly, but to use technology to help in multiple representations of concepts. For example, the concept of a ‘rate’ can appear as the speed of a moving character, the slope in a graph, and a coefficient in an equation; using graphs, this can help students visualise the concepts better and draw mental images.

Maths education is a key skill in today’s dynamic world. It must focus on linking to day-to-day maths and encourage problem-solving, help visualisations, build reasoning and logic, teach pattern recognition and make connections, among other things. Our current maths education misses these by a wide margin and ends up making maths and its outcome a gatekeeper to success.

Lack of mathematical knowledge can have far-reaching consequences. Our ability to save, take informed investment decisions, or participate in nation building are built on the foundation of basic mathematical skills.

For a country which discovered the concept of zero as a digit in the decimal place value notation and where the man who knew infinity was born, we need to make maths interesting. We need this for the current generation and for the generation who will step into the professional world soon. It will be a disaster if we discover sometime soon that the youngest nation in the world missed learning mathematics as a life skill.

By Ambarish Datta

The author is the MD & CEO of BSE Institute Ltd, and the founder director of BFSI Sector Skill Council, National Skill Development Corporation

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First published on: 09-05-2016 at 05:52 IST