Math: The Poetry of “logical ideas”

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Math: The Poetry of “logical ideas”

Remarks for Carlton Earl Samuels
Assistant General Manager
Group Finance and Mortgage Operations
Jamaica National Building Society
Mathematics Teacher of the Year Award
Mona Visitor’s Lodge
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 9.30 am

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas”

Ladies and gentlemen, educators…… mathematics is not just about figures and formulas. Not many of us realise that mathematics is in fact at the seat of the decisions we make every day—it is the sequence of common logic.

Stop to consider, for example, the reason you choose to iron your clothes for the week every Sunday or Saturday, instead of ironing every morning before you head to work or school. It’s a logical decision.

You choose to iron on the weekend because:
 It saves you time each morning, so that you can be punctual, which enhances your learning time at school, if you are a student; or, your productivity, if you work; and also contributes to you maintaining your job, which means you will maintain or even improve your income.

 In addition, one ironing session, rather than several, saves electricity, which lowers your monthly utility bill.

Add it all up, and it means that you can save time and money…and use both to accomplish something else that is more important to you.

That simple example, ladies and gentlemen, explains one of the ways in which we live and breathe mathematics.

You may ask yourself: “Then, why don’t our children perform better in mathematics?” Or, why is it that every year students are struggling to pass the subject of mathemetics at the CSEC level?

Although the CSEC statistics for 2013 show a marginal increase of five percent, the performance in mathematics remains consistently weak; and, we continue to grapple with trying to understand why we can’t do better.

As human beings, we don’t naturally fear math, ladies and gentlemen. From the moment we are born, mathematics becomes part of our daily consciousness. That fear factor emerges as a result of our experiences in the classroom, which begins for many of us at a very early age.

There seems to be too much rigidity in the way mathematics is taught in our classrooms. Our students are fed lots of complex formulas and fractions that many of them can never appreciate how it will ever add value to their lives.

There is not enough discourse in the classroom; and, by that, I don’t simply mean activities that help students to understand a topic or two, but substantial and consistent discussions that invite students to ask questions and receive feedback in an effort to help them understand how the topic or module fits into the big picture.

I recall that my own math teachers at…(name of high school), always made it their point of duty to not only regurgitate the raw formulas and methods, but they often took the time to make the connection between mathematics and everyday transactions, because if we did not understand the fundamental principles, then it was very likely that many of us would fail.

This teaching methodology, which was more about facilitating dialogue and less about chalk and talk, helped me to become the number one student in math.

Our classrooms, similarly, need more dialogue. Our class rooms need to become spaces, in which learning is facilitated and not a box where instructions are given. Instructions, which will be forgotten as soon as the student leaves the classroom.

As educators, we have to help our students to make the connection between mathematics and their realties. You see, ladies and gentlemen, in the end, our performance in mathematics and, also science, has implications for our country’s economic development and competitiveness.

We must be cognisant that math and science are the foundation of innovation and the data shows that in countries which lack a robust foundation in math and science…the citizens feel it in their pockets.

In the United States of America, for instance, reports and studies have linked its decreasing economic influence in world to its depleting pool of math and science skills. Just recently I read a story in the Wall Street Journal, which showed just how vital math and science were to a country’s competitiveness.

Quoting a study by Stanford University, the Wall Street article notes that…if the US raised its national test scores in math and science to the levels of countries, such as China, Singapore and Japan, then it would add two-thirds of a percentage point to gross domestic product annually.

Similarly, in the UK, UCL Professor Emeritus, Brian Butterworth has been quoted by the UK’s Telegraph newspaper as saying that Britain could add 0.44 percent to GDP if its lowest 11 percent of the population achieved the minimum standard in math.

In Jamaica right now, our efforts to transform our country into a Global Logistics Hub will require that we improve our competency in math and science to capitalise on the opportunities that will emerge.

Let us do the math. To become a logistics hub, it means we will need engineers of all kinds, we will need accountants; we will need innovators—a workforce competent in mathematics to create the solutions and provide the support necessary to the investments that will emerge and increase productivity.

Although there is a need for more investment in education to produce the quality workforce that we require, we can achieve more now if we begin to change the way we help our students to understand the fundamental principles of math.

Math is not a foreign language. We speak it and live it every day and so it must be conveyed to students in a way that makes them see how it fits naturally into their own realities.

Against that background, I congratulate the finalists for the Math Teacher of the Year and the regional winners. It is clear that you have all made the mark and that you are doing something right in classrooms.

I note, particularly, that the six teachers who scored the highest points are from rural schools. This warms my heart because it means our rural schools, many of which are far more under-resourced than our urban schools, are simply not sitting around waiting to receive all the resources they need. Instead, they are implementing the methodologies that will help them to achieve not just better scores, but produce quality students who are competent in mathematics.

As a building society, Jamaica National has been intricately involved in developing these competencies in our students, forming a partnership with The Victoria Mutual Building Society in 2008, called the Centres of Excellence, to tackle a range of issues, including the teaching of math in six rural non-traditional high schools, for a five-year period.

And, through capacity-building interventions under the programme, we have witnessed how taking a question-led approach to in-class discussions, for instance, has enlivened the classroom and improved the outcomes of students.

All six schools, although far from perfect, are improving. More students are being entered to sit CSEC mathematics, English Language and science at these institutions– an indication that there is a growing interest among students in the subjects. More of them are also passing the subjects.

Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you not to leave this awards ceremony today just feeling good that there are a few things that are going right in some of our schools. Let’s take some action.

Let us use these top math teachers as examples and record what they do in the classroom so other teachers may have a standard of what a good math lesson looks like.

And, let’s also use them as mentors in their own schools, so they can assist with improving the standard of teaching in their own sphere.

Ladies and gentlemen, the onus is on all of us to prepare our students for the future.

Not everything we need now to improve the education system requires money. In many instances, we are required only to change the way we do things to achieve the best results.

It’s not Latin… its pure logic.

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