A parent once commented that she would rather her child – who was going to Primary One soon – do assessment books than learn through playing educational games. Her remarks underlie a belief that learning mathematics as a subject is best done through practising examination questions repeatedly. Surely practice makes perfect right?
The answer is, unfortunately, no.
The importance of mathematics
Imagine if you were doing sales in your profession. Your boss asked you to submit daily sales reports and analyses, so much so that you had no time to meet clients for actual sales. While you might become an expert in analysing sales trends and consumer behaviour, you would lack the experience in interacting with potential customers and conducting actual sales.
Mathematics is more than just solving examination problems. It is very much part of our lives. It is a tool that we use to interact with our environment in a modern society. Those who cannot grasp basic mathematics are at a severe disadvantage, which can mean being excluded from holding a skilled job. This is why mathematics enjoys the highest priority alongside languages in primary education, compared to science and other subjects.
Why learning mathematics is tough
Mathematics is also one of the most feared subjects amongst students. It is about the only subject that elicits anxiety in its learners, a phenomenon that has received attention from academic researchers. Anecdotally, we see more children going to restrooms during examinations for mathematics papers.
So why does practice not always make perfect? It depends on several factors. We equate learning to taking an examination. Many students have related how they would cram before their examinations, and that they would immediately forget what they had learnt after. This happens when we study for the sake of passing examinations. Good grades do not always translate to true understanding and the ability to apply what has been learned.
Another factor lies in the motivations for practice. If we practise just to do well in examinations, we may not really enjoy the subject. We are no different from a human calculator, devoid of passions and interests. Conversely, if we practice because we love what we are learning, it takes learning to a whole new experience.
There are actually many ways to learn mathematics. We need to see that life is not just about applying a formula to solve every problem. If we allow ourselves to see that learning mathematics is more than just passing examinations, then we will become open to other means of learning the subject, beyond just drills and practices.