Remembering High School Maths

Maths problem solving and equationsD’s maths teacher sent through ten maths problems for him to solve over the weekend, and helping him with this has taken me back to my maths education at high school.

I never liked maths. I was always a word kind of person, enjoying English the most out of all of my subjects (although I never really liked the required reading texts much). I always struggled with maths and the different concepts presented, possibly helped along in no small part by the belief that I wasn’t a maths person. In Year 7 the problem sheets we were given for homework were always difficult and challenging but being the kind of student I was, I hated getting red crosses for anything so diligently put in the effort to solve them correctly.

Despite not liking maths and not considering myself good at it, I got excellent grades until Year 11 when we were able to choose our subjects. At Year 11 level there were two levels of maths, Further Maths, which was dubbed veggie maths, and Maths Methods, which was far more technical and demanding. My friends were all science-maths types and they convinced me in joining them in Maths Methods. From the very beginning that was a bad idea. I was in a class with all the kids who went on to become engineers and scientists, people for whom complex mathematical equations would be part of their university degrees. I had no such ambitions and really should have taken veggie maths along with the other students who were aiming for business degrees.

My Year 11 Maths Methods class became hell and I the demon who terrorised it. I mostly copied the work from my friends, still not understanding anything or how it was applicable in the real world. I spent great chunks of time distracting other students, which for my goody-two-shoes student persona was a huge departure from my reputation at school and I developed a bad attitude. In one particular class, a fellow student complained to the teacher that my wandering around the classroom and loud voice was distracting so the teacher gave me an ultimatum, to sit down and focus or leave the classroom. So I defiantly packed up my books and chose to leave the class, surprising everyone including the teacher who still considered me a responsible student.

I do not know how I managed to pass the year, but as it came to selecting subjects for the final year of school, I was not swayed by my friends’ encouragement to continue with Maths Methods, that I would make it through. So I dropped down to Further Maths at Year 12 level and discovered an interest in maths I never knew I had. Maybe it was the wonderful teacher, maybe it was being back in an environment where I understood the mathematical concepts or maybe it was because I could apply percentages and probability and the like to real life needs for problem solving. I aced the class and ended up with the best Further Maths score from my school, 49 out of 50, which equated to getting a couple of questions wrong on the end of year exam and was way higher than any of my other preferred subjects. Only years later when I organised an event of the Premier’s VCE Awards for my state celebrating excellence by giving awards to the students who received study scores of 50 out of 50 did I realise just how well I had done.

Nowadays I rely on Excel formulas for most of my maths problems, but that interest in percentages, probability and statistics remains. So helping D with his homework on fractions is interesting and something that I get. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t get it.

I had printed out the sheet of problems from the teacher and left it for him to work on yesterday morning while attending an Escuela de Padres (Parents’ School) on values at his school. I was in a bit of a bad mood about this, as I usually am regarding Escuelas de Padres, and especially since they set it for a long weekend and with mandatory attendance, although there weren’t many parents there.

I came home to find that D hadn’t done the maths homework because he didn’t understand what to do. So this morning we sat down to the first three problems.

“If Juan, Antonio and Carlos each received 12, 36 and 48 respectively on the test out of a maximum 96, what fraction did they each receive.”

Cool! I thought. We had discussed fractions expressed as percentages yesterday while cooking lunch when I asked him to fill the saucepan 3/4 full and I checked to see that he had understood.

Unfortunately he still couldn’t work it out as I explained the problem and what he needed to do. I wrote the equations he needed to do with long division (something I never ever understood and cannot help him with, but D seems to be good at long division). He eventually solved the problem and I said how he could learn little shortcuts to help, things like how 96 is close to 100 and 48 close to 50, so 48 should be about half of 96 and that you can figure this out at a glance if you use these kinds of logic tricks.

We moved onto the second question about needing 1/8 of a gallon of paint diluted in 1/16 of thinner to paint 1 door, and therefore how much is needed to paint 3 doors. This also escaped him and we spent a good 15 minutes on it with diagrams of bottles broken into eighths and sixteenths to colour in the levels.

The third question was much more difficult, but structured in a way of being able to check your answer doing a few additional equations, yet my patience evaporated as no amount of explanation seemed to help him. I guess the additional check equations confused him rather than helped and he then couldn’t go back and put his finger on which one was the answer to the question.

So while he copies out the answers to the first three questions on a fresh sheet, trying to remember exactly which scratchings on the scrap paper are the relevant ones, I sit here typing in my blog about the time I hated maths, hoping to soothe my impatience because we still have another seven questions to go.



A report card & maths class

Sheldon would have been horrified at the parents meeting today.
Sheldon would have been horrified at the parents meeting today.

Today was the last day of school before a week of holidays for Semana Santa (Holy Week / Easter) and so the parents were invited to the school to receive first term reports.

This is the third parents meeting for D’s Grade 5 class I’ve been to this year, the fourth when you count the farce of a Parents Council meeting during which I wrote furious notes about the principal’s narcissism, the complete lack of explanation of the role and frequency of Parents Council meetings, the disorganised elections of committee representatives, the vast quantity of parents who hadn’t finished school and wanted to return to study and the principal’s complete lack of ethics in naming people for whom the parents should not vote for in elections for mayor of Bogotá. I had intended for those notes to become a blog post, but they are probably too harsh and the summary above should be enough to give you an indication of my shock at how I’ve found Colombian government schools to be.

Usually we are only told the evening before that there is a class parents meeting in the morning, but for this one we had a week to program activities to ensure our attendance. I am the one who has been to every single parents meeting because they always fall on one of the three mornings per week that mi novio has classes. His cooking school is expensive and he can’t afford absences, so I am the sole representative from our family, which is a bit scary because I don’t always understand every nuance and struggle to hear what the teachers are saying because of distracting background jabber. (Second language speakers will know it’s so hard to focus on what is being said while in a noisy room).

In each of the three class-based parents meetings, the male teacher has said the same thing:

“We Colombians lack reading comprehension because we simply don’t read. This isn’t just our fault here in the class or at home, it is a cultural thing. Children will mimic the behaviour of their parents, so if they don’t see their parents reading even a newspaper, they won’t read themselves.”

Now that I’ve heard that for the third time I realise the teacher gives the parents an out for why they don’t read, or think that reading is important, although he did ask how many parents had thought to give a book instead of a toy. I am a big reader. I’ve always loved reading and stayed up late to finish chapters. I remember once in Grade 3 (about age 9) I was reading a Babysitters Club book on the bus. A Grade 6 girl came up to me and told me I was too young to be reading a book that thick. Thankfully I didn’t let that criticism stop me and went on to collect 40 more Babysitters Club books up until I grew out of the girls’ antics. Anyways, instilling an interest in reading in D is difficult. I came into his life as he was about to turn 8, and I don’t think he owned a single storybook. He had a couple of books on dinosaurs, but that was about it. I struggle big-time with this and acknowledge completely that it is a cultural and a socio-economic issue. Television rules in Colombia.

I am also starting to realise that these meetings are not just progress updates for the parents, but personal development classes where they teach the parents how to parent, what are parental responsibilities, and also how to do Grade 5 maths. Today the teacher asked the parents to give him examples of homework problems they didn’t understand and we had a class on long division. I really should admit that while I like statistics and written maths problems, long division has been long forgotten from my brain. I understand the concept of division, just not how to get the solution without using a calculator. I was, however, the only parent who was able to answer correctly why the kids need to learn long division instead of just using a calculator. Although offered up by other parents, “For when they don’t have a calculator” and “So they don’t think the calculator is intelligent” were not what the teacher was hoping to get.

The teacher also put up a problem that was given to the kids the day before and asked the parents to solve it. He said the majority of kids got it wrong. It was soy un numero 365 veces que 100, cual numero soy? (I am a number 365 times the number 100, what number am I?). He asked who knew the solution. Nerdy foreigner Camille sitting in the front row raised her index finger shyly but the rest of the room had blank looks, especially when he then said that 365 + 100 was not the answer. He waited a bit longer and the other parents could not deduce from the three other equation types which to use. I mumbled “Multiply” and the teacher scanned the room one more time before nodding in my direction and asked me to repeat the answer. He used that as a case in point for lack of reading comprehension because they didn’t know what ‘veces‘ was in mathematical processing. I got to put on a doubly proud face because D got this question right on the test. 🙂

In addition to the maths class the primary coordinator stopped by to dictate to the parents that they need to focus on three things with their kids during Semana Santa:

  1. Health – get check ups for dental, vision and hearing, and focus on nutrition and exercise
  2. Creating good study habits – not leaving homework til the last day, playing board games with their kids
  3. Rules and limits – set timeframes for how long they can play with a video game, or visit a neighbour etc

I came away from the meeting deflated by all this preachiness to the lowest common denominator and being made to feel like I am incompetent to raise an intelligent and considerate child without the school’s intervention.

I also find it so hard not to compare it with education in Australia. Okay, I find it impossible. In Australia, a kid can go to a government school and get an excellent education. That’s not the case here where it’s a rare case for a graduate of a government school to go to university, and they instead encourage students who excel to continue to vocational education – this is straight from the back-patting speech of the principal at the Parents Council meeting and not any observation of my own. Education in Australia is colourful, imaginative, project and team-based. I worry that when we move to Australia one day, D will be behind the other kids not just for his level of English, but because he has not been guided in using critical thinking, and so that is something we try to work on at home.

I now know why parents who can, pay to send their kids to school and we will be looking for a new school for D to start high school next year. I want to give him every opportunity to shine and learn in an environment where the majority of other kids are also there to study and learn and who have high aspirations for their futures. D’s marks reflect a good opportunity for improvement in some key areas. His report card did not have the consistently high marks he received at his small school in Santa Marta and it may sound contradictory to what I’ve mentioned above, but I think he is learning more here in Bogotá and he has better educated teachers. We’re also happy that he’s settled in smoothly after a big change of environment and that he is now more self-starting and independent with his homework than he was in Santa Marta. Now we just need to focus on improvement in some subjects so we can get him into a good school where I can go to the parents’ meetings and be spoken to like a responsible and educated adult.

Just throwing it out there … do you know of a good co-ed secondary school in the north of Bogotá that operates on the calendar year, teaches classes in Spanish and doesn’t cost millions of pesos per month?