Every learner needs to put in the effort, time and energy to learn and master new knowledge and skills. There is no short-cut to learning. You cannot take a pill and expect to attain higher levels of mastery. Such pills only exist in the world of fiction, not reality. If you want to master any difficult knowledge or skill, you need to put in the effort, energy and persevere through the difficult period called the learning process.
Thursday, 13 May 2021
It takes a whole set of skills and the right attitude to teach and inspire students who are weak at Math. To do it via an online platform like Zoom can make it tougher. But it is not impossible. To those who are interested as to how this is possible, watch a glimpse of it here.
Thursday, 21 January 2021
"What is ml?" Unsure. Litre? "How many millilitres is equal to 1 litre?" Unsure again. So I taught the student the conversion from litres to millilitres and the reverse. Some students will be able to master the formula and “prove” to us that they understand, but do they? As teachers, tutors and adults, will you deceive yourselves and move on to the next skill, telling yourself that the student understands the concept? You should test him for his true understanding.
“Look at this packet drink? How much liquid is in it?” Silence. “Guess. Come on.” Silence again. “Come on, just guess.” What sort of Math teacher is this man?" the kid was probably wondering. “I don’t how,” the student finally replied. “I know you don’t know, but just guess.” The kid guessed a number, which was wrong, and then I said, “Look at the packet drink and see how much liquid there is in it.” The child picked up the packet drink and turned it this way and that, searching for a number. “100!” he said. “Nope, that’s the number of calories per serving.” Finally, I pointed out "250 ml" to him, making sure he saw the number 250 and the “ml” unit. The beginning of real understanding about litres and millilitres had just begun. But I will not deceive myself into thinking that I have done a good job. Real understanding and Math mastery are still a distance away.
“Now, 4 packets drinks, each 250 ml, makes 1000 ml, which is equal to 1 litre of liquid.” Confusion. “Go to your fridge. Take out the milk.” He walked up to the fridge and removed the requested item and lay it down on the table in front of us. “You see this – “1 litre” – you know what it means?” He looked at me without revealing whether he knew it or not. I took the 250 ml packet drink and explained that the liquid from 4 packet drinks could fit into the 1-litre milk carton. From his eyes, I saw that understanding was being built. The child needed more activities to help him make the connections between Math concepts and the real world. This is the process of injecting meaning into a child's learning.
I scanned the kitchen, looking for an appropriate measuring container to reinforce the concept. Ha! A blender with millilitre markings! “Bring that blender over here,” I requested. Obediently, the child carried the heavy glass blender over. And I spent some time getting the student to pour water from a bottle into the blender and so on. Why? Because the question in his textbook stated that someone poured x amount of juice from one container into another. I was simulating the process so that the child could imagine what the question was about. Children must see meaning in the sums they are doing. This is crucial. But do we have time for this? Some may say - Since the PSLE is just less than 9 months away, isn't spending such precious time doing activities when the child has so, so much content to master an unwise move? They emphasise that is especially true when there is so little time left before the big exam. Yes, many adults panic in year 6 of the primary school study.
Think how foolish it is to continue teaching and moving to the next skill for a child who does not understand the earlier levels. The child does not understand the basic concepts and the teacher would like to teach him to master the concepts at a higher level? Can true mastery of any concept even be attained without real understanding? Shouldn't we realise that it is because the child did not truly comprehend the concepts at earlier levels of study that he is in dire straits now at Primary 6? The logical solution is to help him master the concept in its meaning first. Only then there is hope that he can master the concept at higher levels.
We have to teach for meaning. Why is Mathematics in our school curricula if it is not meaningful? How can we then teach a meaningful subject in a meaningless way? Strange. Stranger still when this is happening in a first world country where the public education budget is relatively high. But I am not surprised. Why? When I was a student, I asked my teachers for the purpose and meaning of the subjects they taught. A common answer they could give me was this – “focus on the tests and exams first and we will discuss this after the exams”. What an answer! Perhaps the teachers did not know how the subjects they taught were meaningful. Perhaps.
As a teacher, I cannot teach without the meaning. Mathematics must be meaningful.
Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Sunday, 4 October 2020
Memory is a strange thing. Although we are the main actors in our recall of the past, all the main actors suffer from selective recall, remembering only a small slice of the past and forgetting the many incidents that are wedged permanently in the minds of some. I suffer from this too, all the time. But this time, I remembered more than some of the other actors. It seems that they have forgotten much.
Only yesterday, some 23, 24 years ago, I was a slim school teacher tutoring a 12-year old boy by the name of CGY (ie. his initials). We reunited today at Fork and Spoon in Toa Payoh. “Wah! You are gemuk (fat)!” Mdm Chua remarked on seeing me. Yes, I am now the no-longer-embarrassed owner of a bulging XXL tummy. Don’t believe I have an XXL tummy? Try sticking your finger into the navel and you might lose your finger in its depth and dirt.
CGY was a small young boy who was weak in Math. I remember his complaints well. “Teacher, teacher, headache, headache!” This happened whenever I stretched him to the limit. The playful lad had exercised his body with wushu and dragon dance but his mind had lazed around for far too long. And so I pushed him to the limit, making him memorise the timetables until he could regurgitate them within 2 minutes or so, at the speed of 1 time table card per second or two. This was the same boy who could not recite his time tables within 10 long minutes a few months earlier.
And so I met CGY, and we recalled what we each remembered. I was surprised they could not recall the many glimpses I had stored in my mind. You see, CGY was one of my first Math students whom I had impacted, and in turn, his transformation impacted me. Glimpses of him as my Primary 6 student still dance in my mind. He was able to pursue a 5-year Normal Academic Secondary programme despite studying at the EM3 level (what we call Foundation PSLE programme today) in Primary 6. Few EM3 students made it to the Normal Academic stream. When I looked at him, superimposed over his face was that small, often shirtless boy who loved practising his dragon dance moves. This is not the student that I had taught more than 2 decades ago! The boy that I knew could not speak English well and was not as polite as this associate architect. Indeed time has passed and CGY has blossomed into a caring gentleman. I smiled when 35-year old CGY declared that he had graduated from NUS with a Master Degree in Architecture.
Towards the end of our reunion, CGY’s mother enquired whether I could teach her niece who was struggling with Math. My first question was - was she failing? Was this a strange question? To make sure they understood my mission, I messaged him - “about tuition…I look at myself as a place of last resort, where hope is given to students and parents who are approaching hopelessness. This makes the work meaningful for me, and I need that - so because of this, the students I take are mostly failing in Math.” I am glad I have defined my work in tuition in this manner because whenever I succeed in my efforts to help a failing or weak child, I make an impact. And this impact is worth more than the dollars that are paid to me. So, with the reunion I had today, and the fact that CGY’s mother wanted to meet me after all these years, deep inside me, I felt something that money could not buy - that warm feeling and assurance that I had played a small role in the journey to success of a human being. It is indeed a joy to meet a soul from the past with whom I had shared a transformative journey. May God bless CGY, his mother and his family with success and truth.
Sunday, 10 November 2019
From that day onwards, his mistress changed from a loving lamb to a strict tigress; love and kindness for the slaves had left her heart. She stopped teaching Douglass and he observed, “Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper.”
|Frederick Douglass in 1879|
So why was Frederick Douglass so eager to learn while our children with relative lives of ease are often reluctant? I leave Frederick Douglass to explain this to you (but I have underlined the sentences that contain the essence).
"It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both."