8 Jan 2013

What is GiftedMathematics.com Really About?

In my years of teaching both mathematics and physics, it has become apparent that standards have been slipping for a long time. This is not just a question of dumbing down, but also one of creeping disinterest and boredom. The real tragedy is that it is now affecting both students and teachers. [1]

The one saving grace that I see in the educational landscape is the increase in extra-curricular activities. Looking specifically at mathematics, the Olympiads have set a gold standard for decades. Moreover, the competitions that discover new Olympiad mathematicians are actually open to every student and, I believe, every student benefits from these challenges.

The kind of mathematics that is needed to be successful in these competitions is often very different to what is taught in the standard school curriculum. Mathematics teachers would love to be able to teach this kind of mathematical thinking, but usually lack the time because of the overbearing task of completing that year's syllabus in preparation for official testing.

GiftedMathematics.com is here to fill that gap; to retrain students into the art of mathematical thinking and bring back the joy of solving puzzles that at first glance seem impossible.

GiftedMathematics.com is also here to build up resources for teachers so that they have ready-made lessons and questions and can deliver extra-curricular lessons to students who wish to participate in their national mathematics competition.

The really big idea is that learning to think mathematically is both interesting and rewarding. In some schools, such training is limited to those children considered gifted in mathematics. It is good that such support exists, but in my experience this kind of problem-solving ability is of great benefit to many other students.

When I ran after-school maths clubs, I used to leave the door open to any student; some would realise it was not for them but many would stay and their confidence would light up as they enjoyed playing around with this new kind of maths. Astonishingly, some did better in the 'harder' mathematics competition than in their school exam. How is that possible?

The brain is the nexus of our thinking and our emotions. People often consider these as two different modes of being, but recent research has shown that they are intimately linked; that 'Aha!' feeling is both a moment of intellectual clarity and a small burst of positive emotions. Success is a buzz; a brain buzz!

Every new piece of knowledge understood, every new technique mastered and every problem solved, all are rewarded with these little bursts of neural joy. The path a student takes is guided by these emotional lights. The task of GiftedMathematics.com and all the mathematics competitions throughout the world is to foster that buzz of knowing how to find the unknown.

What do you think?


[1]. I must add a postscript here, that my criticisms of the education system are largely based on my experience in the UK, although I read of the same problems in the USA. I currently live in South East Asia and most students have the same negative reactions to the official syllabus. There are a few bright lights such as Singapore and Hong Kong but, being essentially city-states, they are acutely aware of the importance of their intellectual capital. I find Singapore interesting in that it is based on the UK system but has not gone down the route of dumbing down. If you think all this talk of dumbing down is fabricated, the Cambridge exam board have just recently introduced an award above A-level, know as Pre-U. The mathematics Pre-U syllabus is identical to what I studied at school over 30 years ago, with all the interesting bits put back in; someone, somewhere had to stop the erosion of standards.

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