Letters/comments published

[The Press, 23 August 2014, letter]

‘Dear Editor,

“Who knew maths could be this exciting?” (Front page banner, 22 Aug) Does The Press think that maths is dull and boring? Why not “Maths at its most exciting”? Success in mathematics opens the door to many interesting careers. We need to adopt a more positive attitude towards maths so that children will put in the practice required. It can, and should, be as enjoyable as reading. Cantamath shows that maths can also be as fun and exciting as sport. Implicit put-downs, such as your banner headline, are unhelpful.’

Yours sincerely,
Dr Audrey M. Tan’

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[New Zealand Listener, 21 December 2013, letter unabridged]

‘Dear Editor,

We have a spat between our tertiary institutions and NZQA (“Brickbats for the NCEA”, December 7). It’s time to bang some heads together.

Unfortunately, it’s true. In my specialist area of mathematics, the structure of NCEA does not support student achievement in algebra, and hence calculus. It’s a real concern because New Zealand desperately needs more science, technology and engineering.

On the other hand, the engineering schools should raise the bar if students attaining “Achieved” grades are under-prepared for tertiary study. The bar should never have been lowered in the first place. Every NCEA student wanting to continue with his or her studies should be aiming for “Merit” or higher.

Unfortunately, secondary students are under-prepared for their studies, too. PISA 2012 results (“The leaning tower of Pisa”, December 14) show New Zealand’s rankings have plummeted (and not just in mathematics). This is the first generation of 15-year-olds tested who learned mathematics at primary school entirely under the influence of the experimental, and now infamous, Numeracy Project. And this curriculum is still in place…

New Zealand mathematics education is in trouble. We need to turn things on their heads if we want to adequately prepare school students for tertiary study. University lecturers should influence what is taught in secondary schools. Secondary school teachers should influence what is taught in primary schools. There needs to be a division of responsibility in designing a school curriculum. Mathematicians should determine the content. Educationists should determine how to deliver that content, and ensure that teachers deliver it effectively.

This is my idea for a brighter future for maths education in New Zealand.

Yours sincerely,
Audrey M. Tan (Dr)’

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[The Press, 25 October 2011, letter unabridged]

‘Dear Editor,

Not for a moment wishing to detract from the All Blacks’ fantastic win on Sunday
night, I’d like to point out they did not banish “24 years of Rugby World Cup heartache” or “bring to an end 24 years of misery” (Oct 24). Presumably the heartache started in 1991 when they did not retain the Cup, thus reducing the period of misery to 20 years?

Time for New Zealanders to shed their pain and improve their maths, I think!

Yours sincerely,
Audrey M. Tan (Dr)’

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[The Press, 14 October 2010, excerpt from “The great Kiwi rip-off?“]

‘Maths lecturer [sic] Audrey Tan says some retailers were unwittingly making mistakes by adding 2.5 per cent onto the old GST-inclusive prices, which is technically incorrect.

“For a small amount, the difference is only a matter of cents, but it does work in the vendor’s favour. But if you look at the big picture, it all adds up. If every business makes the same mistake, consumers will lose money everywhere and businesses will make a profit.”‘

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[North & South, December 2007, letter]

‘Dear Editor,

As a private mathematics tutor, I read “Making Maths Count” with interest. I have questioned the Numeracy Project for some time. Its major failing is its early focus on mental “strategies” at the expense of teaching written skills.

We have a generation of children who quickly run out of steam when faced with large numbers or complex calculations because they have neither the mental capacity nor the written skills to cope.

Whether or not it was the true intention, the harsh reality is that our children are being actively discouraged from writing things down. Being able to communicate effectively in writing is a vital skill. Isn’t it ironic that when these children turn 15, they’re expected to show their working in exams to gain full credit? Yet at primary school they’re refused pencil and paper if they want to scribble a few calculations.

The most important change needed is to reintroduce teaching vertical algorithms from day one. Young children like these methods because they are easy to remember and apply, even when the numbers are large. If children are confident with the basic written skills, the mental skills can be learned in half the time.

Some will embrace the more sophisticated alternatives while others will prefer the slower but always-reliable vertical methods. I see nothing wrong with that, as long as their reasoning is sound and they get the right answer.

Another important change needed is to simplify the content to make it more accessible to primary school teachers and their students. I’m forever amazed at how a simple concept is turned into an elaborate one. A fine example is your sidebar “New Ways to Make Sense of Algebra”. Not only is the algebraic expression incorrect, its connection to the diagrams is tenuous. Any calculation of this kind can be generalised algebraically, but to call it an “algebraic way of thinking” is pushing it.

If the concepts are made so complicated that even the experts can’t explain them correctly, what hope is there for our teachers in delivering them effectively, let alone our children in learning them?

Dr Gill Thomas hopes in 15 years we’ll be closer to having every child effective in mathematics. New Zealand can’t afford to wait that long. By implementing my suggestions, progress would be seen much more quickly, as demonstrated by my students.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Audrey M. Tan.’

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[
New Zealand Listener, 23 June 2007, Letter of the Week]

‘Dear Editor,

As a private educator, a parent, a high academic achiever (an honours degree at 17 and a PhD at 22), and of Asian descent, I read Joanne Black’s “Greater expectations” (June 9) with great interest.

While I am enormously proud of my Chinese heritage, I am uncomfortable whenever anyone mentions the topic of “Asian” academic achievement, because it is too easy to conjure up an illusion that high academic achievement, or, worse, intelligence, is somehow related to an ethnic or cultural difference. We must debunk the myth that academic success is “for Asians only”. We can discuss at great length why Asian values produce better students, but as John Hattie and others rightly say, it is really about hard work and perseverance, and nobody should feel there is any kind of cultural barrier preventing them from achieving.

Yet, I wonder whether this work ethic is really so foreign to New Zealanders. Even our most talented sporting heroes have to put in the hard yakka to perform well at the highest level. If children can understand that playing hard on the sports field is not so different from working hard in the classroom, they can transform a love of sport into a love of learning.

This is what I try to impart to all of my students, and it makes a huge difference to their motivation levels, self-esteem, and consequently their performance.

There is no doubt the family environment is a huge influence on a child’s attitude towards education.

However, I would prefer to see parents set high aspirations for their children, rather than high expectations, which implicitly put pressure on their children to perform.

It is fine (good, in fact) to share parental aspirations with our children, but the key is to help them find their self-motivation, their own sense of achievement and satisfaction in learning a new skill, their own sense of pride in being good at something.

In this way, children will start to set their own high expectations, and then all they need from their parents is love, support and encouragement.

Yours sincerely,
Audrey M. Tan (Dr).’

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