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Positive changes in mathematical education

Exam, hagwon, workbook, answer, frustration, boring and mom: What comes into your mind when you see these words?

Those are the most frequent words that were mentioned in a survey in which students were asked to write a list of words that strike them when they think about mathematics.

The survey was conducted at the Math Clinic, where counseling service is offered to students in elementary, middle and high schools to help them with the difficulties and troubles faced while studying math.

Korean students are eager to study mathematics and have consistently demonstrated their superior achievements in math. This has been manifested in numerous international assessments including the Program for International Student Assessment and the International Mathematical Olympiad.

At the International Congress on Mathematical Education held in Korea this July, mathematical experts and educators around the world showed especially high interest in finding out the secrets of Korean students’ high level of math skills.

However, in reality, it seems that Korean students’ eagerness for math is just for achieving a high score in the exam, not because they like studying math. At the Math Clinic, many students said, “I am so sick of studying math. I get anxiety of making mistakes during the math exam. I’m scared to be scolded by mom if I mess up on the math test.” However these negative attitudes towards mathematics are not a new phenomenon. Even for the mothers who scold their children for poor test scores, mathematics was a difficult subject back then. It is just every mother’s wish and expectation for their children to be good at math.

In January this year, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology announced the plan called the “Advancement of Math Education,” which is aimed at regaining the true character and function of math curriculum with a goal to nurture creative talents and competent citizens with rational thoughts. To this end, the ministry is trying diverse ways to bring a positive change in math education.

First, the perception that math is a difficult and boring subject and is all about memorizing mathematical formulas and solving problems should be changed. The change in students’ textbooks is all the more important as the content and structure of them will play a pivotal role in changing the students’ perception as well as enhancing the understanding of the subject. To help students enjoy and learn math more easily, real-life materials and story-telling methods will be adopted.

Starting from next year, story-telling methods will be introduced in the first and second grade math curriculum in elementary schools and will be gradually expanded to higher grades. In addition, starting from next year, the amount of study materials will be reduced by 20 percent and the reduced amount will be replaced with self hands-on activities in the revised curriculum of middle school textbooks.

Second, the perception that a math class is only composed of a blackboard and chalk should be changed. If we use computers and calculators as instructional tools along with various teaching methods, mathematical concepts would be understood and utilized more effectively. The “Advanced Math Class” which was opened this year is creating diverse new math class models providing a learning environment that enables students to experience, explore and have discussions among themselves.

Students who did not focus on studying or even slept during the math class have changed their attitudes and now participate in class since they make something on their own or have experimental activities.

Mathematics is one of the subjects that put the biggest burden of private-education spending on parents. To ease this burden, EBS Math, a self-directed math learning website, is scheduled to open next year targeting the first graders in middle schools to start. It is then expected to provide diverse interesting content for free covering the whole curriculum from elementary to high school by 2014.

For the change to be actually felt on the educational field, the role of teachers and parents is all the more important. In recognition of this situation, the ministry has a plan to increase the number of training programs to develop the expertise and competence of teachers. In addition, in tandem with the International Congress of Mathematicians which is to be held in Seoul in 2014, a venue for discussion between mathematicians and math teachers from Korea and advanced countries will be prepared.

Until now, a lot of efforts were put in encouraging students to get high test scores in math. However, now we need to shift the focus to inspire students who like to challenge themselves to enjoy math.

Nobody can outperform the person who enjoys what he or she is doing. Once our students start to enjoy math, it is only a matter of time before they excel in the subject. With the better mathematical education, I hope our students who craze over idol groups and computer games also find fun and interest in math and grow up to be talented individuals who are capable of thinking creatively.
Yoon Kyung-sook
Yoon Kyung-sook

By Yoon Kyung-sook

Yoon Kyung-sook is the director of math and science education at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. ― Ed.
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