By Nury Vittachi
Readers may recall that last week I got stuck helping my son with his math homework. It was actually quite doable, as long as you had Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and the Deep Blue supercomputer helping you (in the parent-child sense of "doing it for you").
This week my daughter needed help with her math. A chance to redeem myself! SuperDad to the rescue. "Move over. I'll show you how it’s done," I said, butting her out of her seat.
The homework for a 12-year-old, and I am not making this up, was an equation with a question below it: "In the above polynomial, what can x be equal to in the set of positive irrational numbers?"
Huh? Suddenly, I remembered a pressing appointment elsewhere and fled the scene.
It made no sense. I thought a "Polynomial" was a resident of the Pacific islands. And everyone knows that numbers cannot be "irrational" (a Latin word meaning "female").
Has mathematics become harder? Or have I become significantly stupider? (Don't answer that.)
You know what it is? Math teaching methods have changed over the years.
Teaching style in Asia in the 1930s:
Complete the following list of arithmetic tables: 12 x 12 = 144. 12 x 13 = 156. 12 x 14 = 168. 12 x 15 = 180. 12 x 16 = 192. 12 x 17 = 204. 12 x 18 = 216. Now memorize them by copying them out 100 times.
Teaching style in Asia in the 1940s:
Mrs A has 13 mangos. She gives six mangos to her husband and six to her son. She shares her last mango between her six daughters. Is she being deferential enough to the men in her family?
Teaching style in Asia in the 1950s:
Mrs Fong has 13 mangos. She gives 12 to her local Party work unit because property is theft. Should they shoot her for keeping one?
Teaching style in Asia in the 1960s:
Amy has 10 apples. Should she eat them, smoke them or puree them so they can be ingested intravenously? Justify your answer using lyrics from Beatles songs.
Teaching style in Asia in the 1970s (the era of New Math):
Amy has 10 apples. We can think of her as set A, and her apples as the subset (A/a = 10). If Amy gives five apples to her friend Melanie (set M), who already has three apples (M/a = 3), what does the word "subset" mean anyway?
Teaching style in Asia in the 1980s:
Ming Ming has a cassette recorder and a shack on the roadside. Jaya has a cassette recorder and an Abba cassette. How long will it take them to make a fortune in pirated cassettes?
Teaching style in Asia in the 1990s:
Ming Ming has ten shares of Apple Computers Inc. She wants to retire by the time she is 40. Should she (a) work hard and save money? Or (b) make a career writing viruses that attack Microsoft software?
Teaching style in Asia today:
Ming Ming is starting a secondary market in selling unused hydrocarbon credits to offset global warming. She can achieve a profit ratio of 3.5 per cent net after costs of 81 per cent where x = 100 – 73/81. In the above polynomial, what can x be equal to in the set of positive irrational numbers?
Can anyone give me Deep Blue’s email address?