In the July 10, 2012 issue of USA Today, I read two articles that seemed to conflict each other. One, a commentary by Patrick Welsh, said that many students in the United States were signing up for summer remedial math classes during the summer holidays to digest what they had failed to understand during the semester. The other, a front page report, said that 37％ of fourth-graders, 57％ of eighth-graders and 39th of 12th-graders complain their math lessons are “often” or “always” too easy.
This reminded me of the story of Goldilocks. Tasting three bowls of porridge, she finds one is too hot, another is too cold, only the third is just right. It seems that students want a bowl of instructional porridge that is just right.
But is that possible?
Welsh argued that schools are pushing students to reach higher levels before they are ready. He said this dents the students' confidence and eventually leads to a loss of interest in math, which means the country risks losing potentially excellent scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
The US federal and state education authorities have been sounding the alarm about science, technology, engineering and math education for some time now, especially after the economic recession set in. This is because student improvement in these areas is supposed to translate into economic growth, job creation and national competitiveness. This has contributed to an increasingly advanced math curriculum being taught.
However, students are not learning machines. There is a thing called cognitive overload that shuts down a learning mind when the subject becomes overwhelmingly difficult.
What Welsh described is all too familiar to most Chinese. While the curriculum becomes increasingly difficult every year, parents still push their children to learn difficult math subjects by enrolling them in summer or after-school tutoring programs, which aim to prepare students for future semesters or math contests. Parents want their children to get a head start at the beginning of what they perceive to be a race. Few care whether such shortsighted practices eat into young students' confidence and interests. But the fact is, too much math too early may lead to fewer students choosing science, technology, engineering and math subjects as their major at university.
At the 2012 annual Blackboard user group conference I attended in July, Freeman A. Hrabowski of the University of Maryland noted that India and China are competing with the US in science, technology, engineering and math teaching. However, he was puzzled to find that fewer Asian students graduate with degrees in these subjects. One explanation I would give is that students in China are burned out due to the excessive pushing from parents and teachers in earlier years. Students grow tired of these subjects before they develop a lasting passion for them.
But just as too much pressure can demotivate a student, so can boredom. I sympathize with students who complain that the math they are being taught is too easy for them. They need to be reasonably stretched to maintain their interest.
Between the extremes of disabilitating stress and infuriating boredom, there should be a point at which the teaching is just right for an individual student. Confucius, one of China's great educators, argued that teachers should teach to “individual abilities”. Jean Piaget also believed that students should learn based on their developmental stages.
However, in large schools in both the US and China, the huge number of students mean it is a luxury to expect such one-on-one teaching. Fortunately, technology has the potential to diagnose a student’s level and prescribe the right kind and right amount of education tailored to a student’s needs and abilities. Khan Academy hosts numerous bite-sized videos to help kids learn content in multiple subjects. Technology will never replace a teacher, however, a computer can stop a child from being embarrassed if he or she has to watch the same instructional video 20 times to really understand a concept.
The summer has come. Many parents may consider sending children off to summer schools or programs to help them learn. However, unless such instruction is designed to facilitate individual learning, it may have the opposite effect to the one intended.