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Saturday 24 November 2018

From Darkness To Dawn: Adventures in PSLE Math

Tuition With Al, Ak, Az, Ha and Is
Tuition With Do, Hu and Ir
Exactly 12 months ago, five Primary 5 students who had failed at Mathematics at their SA2 examinations enrolled for the P5 Math ReLearn programme taught by me. Their names were Az, Ak, Ha, Al and Do – 2 boys and 3 girls. And so I taught them the content concepts and skills  their school Math teachers had taught them before.

From the very first lesson, I told them that if they believed in themselves and practised Math, they would pass PSLE Math; in fact, they could even get an A if they worked hard. I saw that familiar look on their faces – polite faces that didn’t really believe what I had said. Well, this is only natural especially for those who had started failing Math from Primary 5 or earlier. Math had become tough and confusing for them.

These 5 students enrolled in my P6 Math classes and stayed with me for 9 months until this year’s PSLE. Az, Ak, Ha and Al were in the same class and Do was in another class. As the months passed, Az, Az, Ha and Al felt so comfortable and happy in my lessons that they were sometimes so noisy. Very loud laughter was often heard by those outside. Sometimes I wondered what the parents (parents of other kids) who were seated outside thought of us and me as a tutor, especially when it seemed to the outside world that we laughed and talked more than we studied.

This class which was held on Friday was noisy while the one on Saturday was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Why were the classes different? Well, Friday’s class was mostly composed of students who hated Math at the beginning of the year while Saturday’s class was mostly composed of students who were eager to study Math. (I did not categorise them this way – it just happened. But Az is a factor in this equation. If you are reading this Az, yes, you lightened up the class a lot and took us off course often! Haha! But I appreciate your enthusiasm and uniqueness.) Of course, I could cover twice as much on Saturday than I could on Friday, but, but, but – but before you conclude that Saturday is “better”, you must realise that Friday’s class had a very intelligent student who had attended both classes and although he had a confirmed place at NUS High and  scored an A-star for this PSLE – he insisted on attending Friday’s class rather than Saturday’s class.

“Why?” I asked. “Boring. This class is so much fun,” Is answered. “But you can learn so much more on Saturday.” “I prefer this class.” In that conversation was a key that many adults overlooked. Motivation. There was so much positive energy in Friday’s class and we all (students-to-students and students-to-tutor) connected so well that sometimes conversations begin and just find it difficult to stop (but they do, of course). The students could ask me anything they wanted and I would answer, and they did. Sometimes they got carried away and  only once did I raise my voice in class to manage things. Even then, one of the girls requested that I did not get angry. I understood. Anger could make that unique happy feeling in class disappear. And so, I continued to be very patient and accommodating. I knew an important and positive transformation was taking place, lesson by lesson, week by week.

By June 2018, a parent contacted me stating her worry that her daughter was still failing. I reassured her that things would be different within 2 months. In fact, out of the 5 students, only Az passed his SA1. I guess the other 4 students were asking when they would breakthrough. I explained to them that they had play catch up with the current and previous syllabi for the last 6 months and it’s OK that they were still failing. OK to fail? Yes, it’s OK to fail. Why? I could see their improvements. They were really learning. They had started liking Math and they could solve many problem sums that they could not before. Their scores were getting better. It was a matter of time. I assured the students that the improvement in scores would be drastic, coming in the last month or two. 

I am glad that the parents of these 5 kids did not pull out their children from the tuition classes. It would have been an incomplete journey. Usually drastic improvement in scores would take place in the last months for those who have failed Math. We will go into why another time.

By the Prelims, all 5 students passed their Math exams except for one, Ak. His mother met me a week before the PSLE, worried. I told her that there was still time and Ak could still pass his Math. Although I knew Ak would improve and breakthrough with time, I was not sure whether there was enough time, given the nearness of the PSLE. 

Well, time passed. One by one, I received their PSLE Math results. Az got a C (and Az, I am disappointed because I expect at least a B from you!). Ha and Al got Cs. Do got an A, as I had told her so (when she was still failing in the months before June) and Math was her best subject (she got Bs for the other 3 subjects). What about Ak? He got a C!

I am so pleased with the results of these 5 kids whom I taught Math*. They were failing Math at Primary 5 and some from earlier years. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to handhold them through a period of academic darkness and lead them out to brightness. I only wish my community (the Malay/Muslim community) only realises that there is a clear approach to help failing Math students to excel in Math even if they are stuck in a negative cycle of failure. It is possible to break the negative cycle and turn them round in a short span of time. But you have to teach different and I call this approach of teaching Math “Breakthrough Math”. It has its unique features and at the end of the programme (or usually in the middle of the programme), the kids would stop hating Math. 

Such an approach exists and we can use it to break the PSLE Math ceiling. I sincerely believe that if the Malay/Muslim community breaks the PSLE Math ceiling, something positive would greet our community psychologically. A positiveness will hit us so hard (God-willing) that we would believe in our capacity and capability so much that the statistics would confirm this on the socio-economic gauge.

*To my other students, I do enjoy teaching you too. 
**To those interested in my Math tuition programme, please visit this link: Tuition.