Saturday, November 30, 2019

PSLE maths: Thorn in the side of parents, or challenge to embrace? - CNA

PSLE maths: Thorn in the side of parents, or challenge to embrace? - CNA

PSLE maths: Thorn in the side of parents, or challenge to embrace?

Emotions ran high after this year's PSLE maths paper. And the question surfaced again: Is too much being asked of our children? Talking Point looks for the answers.

CNA Insider
PSLE results day 2019 (4)
Students from Shuqun Primary School receive their PSLE results. (Photo: Ministry of Education)


SINGAPORE: Even as an emotional ride for some 40,000 pupils ended last week when they collected their PSLE results, the journey has begun for others — and not just next year's cohort.

Some parents are starting PSLE tuition for their children at pre-school level, in the hope that they can ace the mathematics paper.

Tuition centre PSLEMath, for example, takes in children from pre-school to Primary Six so they can "prepare for the single goal: PSLE maths exam", said its founder Jason Hiak.

As he explained it, the simple concepts taught in pre-school are the same ones that "slowly evolve into complicated questions that are potentially tested in the PSLE". "If you start (tuition) at pre-school, you have an advantage," he said.

Jason Hiak's tuition centre PSLEMath takes in children from pre-school to Primary Six.
Jason Hiak.

Ten weeks of classes at his centre cost between S$400 and S$500, and although preparing for the PSLE at a pre-school age seems a bit extreme, it is a question of demand and supply.

And there is always the opportunity to capitalise on any furore over PSLE maths questions, as with this year's Paper 2, which made headlines concerning pupils in tears and parents calling it "exceptionally difficult".

No sooner had the questions gone viral online than the solutions were posted by various tuition centres. Some centres also said they go the extra mile to compile these questions and brainstorm "all possible solutions".

But is PSLE maths too difficult without tuition? Is the model method the key to answering the tough questions? And are tough papers the reason for Singapore's top global ranking in maths?

Singapore beats Hong Kong and Macau in maths in the Programme for International Student Assessment.
Singapore beats Hong Kong and Macau in mathematics.


This year is not the first time parents have complained about PSLE maths questions.

But parent Giri Vedha — who tutored his older son for the 2015 exam and is doing the same for his younger son entering Primary Six next year — found this year's questions more difficult than previous ones.

"Parents are a little bit sad because … extremely tough questions are coming," he said. "The kids are getting disappointed, and they have further tests to attend, so they come home crying. Then what can the parents do?"

So to find out how tough the questions can be, the programme Talking Point gathered two bright minds to answer a few that got the most flak from parents, including previously. (Watch it here.)

Talking Point gathered two bright minds and gave them 30 minutes to answer five PSLE questions.
They have 30 minutes to answer five questions.

Ear, nose and throat surgeon Barrie Tan is a President's scholar who scored an A* on his PSLE maths in 1987; undergraduate Sim Cher Boon is an ethical hacker who recently won the inaugural cybersecurity competition, the Cyber Investigators' Challenge.

And even they could not solve everything. Tan got four correct answers out of five, but was "completely baffled" by the last question, saying he "wouldn't know what to key into the calculator to magically unravel that question".

"I'm amazed that the Primary Sixers will be expected to come up with a technique or at least understand how to answer the question," he added.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Wow, if the kids encounter this early on in Paper 2, and it shakes their confidence, how are they going to handle the other questions?'"

Barrie Tan is a surgeon and a President's scholar who scored an A* on his PSLE maths in 1987.
Dr Barrie Tan.

Sim answered three questions correctly, but that included the last one. It was not something he had learnt in school but something his hacking experiences helped him understand. "I have to look at things from a different angle," he explained.

"Usually, when you think out of the box, one of the first things you see is … patterns. And spotting patterns is something I do in order to find issues with websites."


If there is one thing many parents do not get, it is the model method, especially when they had learnt maths differently in school.

But the method can solve "quite a lot of challenging mathematics problems" at the primary level, said maths educator Yeap Ban Har, who illustrated how it could solve one of the PSLE questions that appeared on social media.

Maths educator Yeap Ban Har uses the bar model method to solve a problem found in the PSLE.
Using the bar model method to solve a PSLE maths problem.

But he cautioned parents against just drilling their children to prepare for the PSLE. "What's really important is the development of ability to visualise," said Yeap, who is considered a maths master in Singapore and abroad.

"If parents want to help their children do very well in mathematics, then they need to focus on visualisation."

While some parents were unhappy about questions said to be outside the syllabus, the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB) told Talking Point that PSLE questions are based on topics taught within the syllabus.

The questions are "aimed at assessing pupils' ability to understand and apply" the mathematics concepts in a given context "by using the information provided".

One of this year's PSLE maths questions that got a lot of flak from parents.
One of this year's questions.

"There'll also be a balance of basic, average and challenging questions to cater for a wide range of student abilities. The challenging questions are structured into smaller parts to support candidates' attempts … and guide them towards the solution," said an SEAB spokesperson.

"When marking the solutions, the general principle adopted is that all solutions that demonstrate the correct understanding and application of mathematical concepts and skills, as required by the question, will be given full credit."

Sometimes parents are "up in arms", said Yeap, because their children have not encountered" some problems "in all the practice papers they've done".

"They'd say … it's so unfair for you to give them the unfamiliar problem during the exams," he added.

But … a problem always entails some degree of novelty, otherwise we call it an exercise, isn't it?


Over the years, Singapore's maths programme has been revised several times. From 1965 to 1979, many of the primary and secondary textbooks used here were imported from other countries. Then in the 1980s, Singapore published its own maths programme.

Singapore published its own mathematics material in 1982.
Singapore published its own maths material in 1982.

In the 2000s, the focus on memorisation lessened as more emphasis was placed on conceptual and strategic thinking. Eventually, Singapore's pupils started to outrank other countries in the subject.

So other countries started to take notice and adapt Singapore's maths to their curriculum. The sentiment is that Singapore's maths is tougher than what is taught in other countries.

This could explain why the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) saw the Republic rank number one in maths, above Hong Kong and Macau. And one of the reasons Singaporean pupils top the Pisa test could be the PSLE.

"The PSLE paper tests them on critical thinking, especially for maths," said Melina Tan, the programme director of enrichment centre Schooling Society. "Pisa tests children on critical thinking as well."

She added that visualisation is an example of critical thinking. And children here "start learning this from Pri 3 onwards".

Melina Tan is the programme director of enrichment centre Schooling Society.
Melina Tan.

"So by the time they do the Pisa test, that's what they're tested on," she said. "They're trained to do it … Singapore maths is different because it challenges your mind to think harder and in greater depth."

While the syllabus is challenging, the SEAB disclosed that, on average, "there's a consistent percentage of students who are able to solve the challenging questions … year-on-year".

"We also want to emphasise that the PSLE is just one of the many checkpoints in a child's educational journey. We urge parents to continue giving their children their fullest support," said the spokesperson.

Talking Point host Steven Chia sees it as "a matter of perspective and expectations".

"I, for one, am going to remind my kids that there'll always be tough challenges in life, like exams — and it's okay to not get that perfect score," he said.

Watch this episode here. Talking Point is telecast on Channel 5 every Thursday at 9.30pm.

Steven Chia sees why parents send their kids for tuition when they keep hearing about PSLE maths.
He can also see why parents send their children for tuition when they keep hearing how tough the PSLE maths paper is.

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