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SMS Distinguished Visitor Programme 2001

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was launched by the Singapore

Mathematical Society in 1998.

Through the visit of a distinguished

math em ati ci anjmathe m a tics

educator and his/her interaction with

both mathematicians/mathematics

educators at the universities as well

as teachers and pupils at the schools

here, the aim of the Programme is to

expose as large and diverse an

audience as possible to the

excitement and relevance of

mathematics, thereby enhance the

awareness of mathematics in our

society.

In 200 1 , the Society was privileged

to have as its Distinguished Visitor

Professor Wilfried Schmid. Born in Hamburg,

Germany, and educated at Princeton University and

the University of California at Berkeley, USA, Wilfried

Schmid attained full professorship at Columbia

University at the age of 27. In the same year,

Professor Schmid was invited to speak at the

International Congress of Mathematicians (the first

of three consecutive occasions in the quadrennial

event), one of the highest honours bestowed on a

mathematician by his peers. Since 1978, Wilfried

Schmid has been Professor at Harvard University,

occupying the Dwight Parker Robinson Chair since

1985.

Besides mathematical research, Professor Schmid

is also a leader in mathematics education. He

currently serves as mathematics advisor to the

Massachusetts Department of Education, and also

sits on the Steering Committee for Mathematics of

the US National Assessment of Educational Progress

(NAEP, which produces the so-called "Nation's

Report Card"), and the International Program

Committee of the 1Oth International Congress of

Mathematical Education (Copenhagen, 2004).

Professor Schmid's article "New Battles in Math

Wars" on mathematics education reforms, which

can be obtained at the website http: II

www .math.harvard.edu/-schmid/articles/wars.html,

appeared in the Harvard Crimson in May 2000.

During his visit to Singapore, Professor Schmid gave

the SMS Distinguished Visitor Lecture entitled "A

Critical Look at Mathematics Education in the United

States", a dialogue session on "Some Issues on

Mathematics Education", a colloquium lecture on

"Automorphic Distributions" at NUS, as well as

engaged in exchange of views and ideas on

mathematics education with teachers, students,

and the general public. A summary of Professor

Schmid's lecture on "A Critical Look at

Mathematics Mucation in the United States" is

recorded below.

US School System

To familiarize his audience with the US school

system, Professor Schmid began his lecture by

looking at the organization of public schools in the

United States. Although details might vary by state,

he pointed out that typical public schools were

administered and financed mostly by the

communities. Consequently, per-student spending

depended on the wealth of the community, resulting

in highly non-uniform public schools. He also

outlined the different roles in education played by

the states and the federal government. The role of

the states included setting standards for teacher

training, certifying teachers, providing some

financing, and setting broad standards for schools

and for textbooks. In addition, most states also

conducted assessment tests. On the other hand,

the role of the federal government was to provide

additional funding for financially disadvantaged

school districts, to pay for educational research and

experimental curricula, and to fund special projects

such as "in-service teacher development" and

internet access. The federal government also

published non-binding suggestions on curriculum

content and textbooks recently.

Next, Professor Schmid briefly touched on the

streaming of students into two different tracks in

typical US schools. At the beginning of the 8th grade

(equivalent to Secondary 2 in Singapore), students

were streamed into two parallel tracks: a singlediscipline track where students were taught courses

in Algebra, Geometry, Pre-calculus and Calculus;

and an 'integrated' track where mathematics was

usually taught at a lower level. He told the audience

that mathematics was typically taught by specialized

mathematics teachers only in 5th grade or higher.

With regard to the training of mathematics teachers,

he said that mathematics teachers were trained in

Schools of Education, and future teachers, including

future high school mathematics teachers, were

usually taught mathematics by mathematics

educators (not mathematicians), who placed much

more emphasis on pedagogy rather than content

knowledge.

Third International

Mathematics and Science

Study

Professor Schmid then turned his attention to the

Third International Mathematics and Science Study

(TIMSS) 1995. The TIMSS was an elaborate

international comparison of mathematics and

science education in different countries, including

Singapore, Japan, France, Russia, Germany,

England and the United States. The study collected

a large amount of data and employed an unusually

careful methodology in comparing student

performance, teacher preparation, textbooks and

teaching styles. He showed the audience a bar chart

that compared the mathematics scores of students

in 4th, 8th and 12th grades taking part in the TIMSS

from the above-mentioned countries. He also

included a few sample questions (appended at the

end of this article) from 8th and 12th grades and

the percentages of correct responses to each

sample question from students from different

700------------------------~

600

500

400

300

Singapore

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50

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MEDLEY

Russia

USA

performance of US students declined drastically at

later grades.

Several conclusions were drawn from the TIMSS

about US student performance and US textbooks.

First of alL the US students did relatively well on

one-step problems, and on "data analysis" problems

which were emphasized in the United States.

However, they did badly on multi-step problems and

problems that required conceptual thinking. As for

the US textbooks, they were less cohesive, with

frequent breaks between subtopics. Furthermore,

the number of pages in a typical US textbook was

also much larger; and the number of topics covered

in any one year was greater, with the topics

remaining in the curriculum (from year to year)

much longer than in other countries. Professor

Schmid said that the problems documented by

TIMSS were at least partially understood already in

the 80s, and he cited as examples two reports: a

1983 report "A Nation at Risk" by the US

government commission, and a 1989 report

"Everybody

Counts",

which

contained

recommendations by the National Research

Council.

of Mathematics

Professor Schmid also mentioned the emergence

of a new player in the eighties- the National Council

of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), which was a

professional organization of mathematics teachers.

The NCTM issued curriculum guidelines in 1989

that aimed to reform the teaching of mathematics

in the United States. It was an elaborate document

written by a large committee of mathematics

educators and teachers, and was promoted by

supporters as de facto national mathematics

curriculum guidelines. The NCTM 1989 guidelines

placed heavy emphasis on the use of calculators,

and, as a consequence, computational skills were

downgraded. The guidelines also promoted group

learning and discovery learning, and emphasized

problem solving as a key to mathematical learning.

"Data analysis" and "statistics" became

important topics, and proofs were

almost completely eliminated.

Following the issue of the NCTM 1989

guidelines, there was a heated debate

between reformers and skeptics of the

reform. Reformers demanded the reduction or even

elimination of direct instruction in favour of "group

learning" and "discovery learning" that would

develop students' mathematical thinking. They also

less emphasis be placed on paper-and-pencil

computations. In contrast, skeptics of the reform

thought that computational skills and memorization

were still very important in the learning of

mathematics, and that calculators should be used

sparingly until after computational competence was

attained. They believed that there should be a mix

of instructional techniques, including direct

instruction, and that mathematical content should

not be neglected in the race to reform.

AReformed Program

Professor Schmid provided an example of a

reformed program developed by TERC, a non-profit

educational think tank in Cambridge,

Massachusetts, and supported by a $7,000,000

grant by the National Science Foundation. The

program was implemented by roughly 3% of US

elementary schools- typically in liberal and affluent

school districts. The program consisted of teacher's

manuals -roughly 10 per year, of up to 120 pages

each, and training sessions for teachers conducted

by TERC. There were no textbooks for students;

instead, students received copies of worksheets

provided by TERC. The authors of the program

claimed adherence to the 1989 NCTM guidelines,

and they opposed the teaching of standard

algorithms. Professor Schmid criticized the program

as being highly scripted, in the sense that teachers

were told exactly how to conduct lessons.

Professor Schmid then showed the audience quotes

from the TERC manual to give them a sense of the

TERC program. According to the TERC manuaL in

an old-style class, students worked alone, focused

on getting the right answer and recorded it by writing

down only numbers, used a single prescribed

procedure for each type of problem, used only

pencils and papers, chalk and chalkboard as tools.

The TERC program demanded a new-style class

where students worked in a variety of groupings,

communicated about mathematics orally, in writing

and by using pictures, diagrams and models, used

more than one strategy to solve problems, used

cubes, blocks, measuring tools, calculators and a

large variety of other materials. The TERC manual

also spelled out explicitly the new role of a teacher:

to observe and listen carefully to students; to try to

understand how students were thinking; to help

students articulate their thinking, both orally and

in writing; to establish a classroom atmosphere in

which high value was placed on thinking hard about

a problem; to ask questions that pushed students'

mathematical thinking further; to facilitate class

discussion about important mathematical ideas.

Professor Schmid made a comment that the

problems to the extent that students did not learn

any primary method in the end. tie also gave a few

examples from TERC worksheets for 3rd and 5th

grade students to illustrate his point.

Professor Schmid was highly critical of the TERC

program, claiming that it had too much play and

too little substance, that students were kept

dependent on mental crutches (like fingers, clock

faces, blocks etc.), and that the practice problems

were far too few and far too easy. tie thought that

the intellectual level was too demeaning to bright

students, while students with poor verbal skills were

disadvantaged.

Textbooks in US

Professor Schmid then touched on the use of

Singapore mathematics textbooks in the United

States. tie told the audience that the Singapore

mathematics textbooks were widely used by home

schoolers, as well as in a significant number of

public and private schools on an experimental

basis. The experiments so far had been generally

encouraging. The Singapore textbooks also served

as a useful reference point for debate about

mathematics education in the United States.

Professor Schmid pointed out some obstacles to

the widespread adoption of Singapore textbooks

in the US: the extensive training required of

teachers; the need to start from 1st grade and

maintain a long-term commitment; not enough

coverage of certain topics - for example, data

analysis - that were emphasized in the US.

Conclusion

To conclude his talk, Professor Schmid offered his

views on ingredients of a good mathematics

education: well-trained teachers; balance between

computational practice, problem solving and

conceptual understanding; sensible balance

between direct instruction and discovery learning;

good textbooks; addressing the needs of students

with various degrees of mathematical talent; putting

some pressure on students but not too much.

Editor's Note: Interested readers may like to view

Professor Schmid's lecture which can be accessed

at

http:/ jsms. math. nus.edu.sg/visitors/

visitors200 l.html.

a) x

b)

X=

C)

X=

10

30, then

d)

X=

95

Correct responses: Singapore 96%; Japan 90%; France 82%; Russia 88%; Germany 79%;

England 61%; USA 73%

If m represents a positive number, which of these is equivalent to m + m + m + m ?

a) m + 4

b) 4m

c) m4

d) 4(m+1)

Correct responses: Singapore 82%; Japan 75%; France 65%; Russia 75%; Germany 57%;

England 42%; USA 46%

If there are 300 calories in 1 00 grams of a certain food, how many calories are there in a 30

gram portion of that food?

a) 90

b) 100

c) 900

d) 1000

e) 9000

Correct responses: Netherlands 84%; France 80%; Russia 71 %; Germany 7 4%; USA 68%

Brighto soap powder is packed in cube-shaped cartons. A carton measures 10 em on each

side. The company decides to increase the length of each side by I 0%. How much does the

volume increase?

a) 10 cm3

b) 21 cm3

c) 100 cm3

d) 331 cm3

USA 17%

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