WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: A radical solution. By Gail Ilagan/MindaNews

It’s safe to say that we would all prefer the second option. It would be very unfair for the school to knowingly accept ill-prepared students, only to process them through the revolving door. That’s like we take your money, you take your chances. The call to education is more than just taking someone’s money and helping him spend it. We must believe that there are still teachers out there who still get their kicks from seeing the lesson sinking in, and never mind if their own stomachs are growling from hunger because, oh you know why. We’re not whining. Nope.

We – you included – are not in denial anymore. The concern for the decline in the academic competencies of our young has been mainstreamed for some years now. Schools at all levels all over the country are in various stages of implementing interventions to address the concern. Much effort and resources have been devoted both by the government and the school systems to prioritize proactive measures. There must be a few that work – mostly in that rare small classroom where the teacher:student ratio is higher, but on the whole, we seem to just blunder on for lack of inspiration.

That’s good, too. At least, for the moment. Blundering on is not a very cost-effective way to solve problems, but we do get to understand more about the problem by learning from our mistakes.

The good thing is that we are not in denial anymore. We have gone beyond finding people and causes to blame for the dismal performance of our students in global tests of competencies and have buckled down to really try and understand the problem. Maybe soon, we would be able to hit on the right formula and redirect the trial-and-error measures for optimal gains.

Oh, okay. We – you included – have to find the solution soon. The figures on math performance are screaming red alert. It seems like we tried just about everything.

For example, despite the adoption of a highly recommended textbook for teaching mathematics that had to be imported from the US, a high standard high school in the region was flummoxed to find four years later that their students’ performance in math was progressively declining by two points every year. At that rate, half of the class was projected to fail fourth year math.

So maybe the book was not the solution. After all, it was a “Look west/white man, save me” kneejerk solution. Considering the US’ problem with the math performance of its students in tests of global competency, the school’s administrators should have had reason to find the recommendation of the American textbook suspect in the first place.

Still, a book is a book is a book. That book had all the required basic concepts and more, but it proved little help in arresting – much less reversing – the decline in math performance of the students.

Don’t blame the teachers either. These are among the best trained, highly qualified, tech-savvy instructors who have had a lot of input on using multi-media to impart concepts and procedures. And they use all these newfangled teaching complements with a very enthusiastic hand, too. Their classes are in awe of the computer effects and all.

But – and it’s a very big but- the kids still can’t compute without a calculator. Don’t wonder why. All that these multi-media demonstrations do is to subliminally suggest to the student that the solution will emerge at the push of a button, complete with the sound of magic for effect, lest you miss it. We just assume that learning is fun under these circumstances. It’s fun, alright. But little learning takes place. You see, student and serious go together. The best learners care enough to be serious about it.

For math, at least, there is no substitute for the paper-and-pencil and board work techniques which we have so readily abandoned for more creative teaching strategies. But don’t take my word for it. Study upon study show that multi-media techniques are no more effective than the tried-and-true method of teaching math. The fixation for this newfangled crap is just to dignify how we have all been suckered by the aggressive marketing and glossy advertisements. Schools acquire them and use them as a selling point. Parents demand state-of-the-art technology for their children because it has been equated with quality education. It assures them that they’re getting their money’s worth.

But really? It’s hard to see that when the math competency is still on retrograde.

Please pause. Take the blinkers off. Has the human mind changed in the way it processes abstract information? Why fix something that ain’t broke? Skimming the surface, the way audio-visual information does, is not the way to lay a solid, deep-below-the-surface-that-no-one-can-take-away foundation to the student’s education. That’s how the young end up broken.

The multi-media generation is likely to get to college with a lousy understanding of mathematical concepts and an erroneous grasp of the rules. They just don’t know when these rules are applicable. You see, people weaned on the pushbutton don’t learn to make judicious decisions. But don’t take my word for it. Study after study on this generation shows that computational errors are most frequent for interpretation and application of concepts underlying set notations, real number systems, algebraic expressions, special products, factoring, and rational expressions.

Prof. Gina Lapaza-Montalan of the ADDU Math Department shared during the general faculty meeting last 2 June 2008 that an incoming freshman told her he was not taught radicals in high school. “But when I drew a square root, he recognized it was a square root. It was not a radical for him, though,” she said.

Probing further, Gina found that the student was fixated with the “square root, square root,” such that even when she gave him a cube root or a fourth root, he still thought of it as a square root. Very strange indeed.

Anyway, that student would be among the incoming freshmen at the Ateneo who would be having daily class sessions for college algebra. Students like him constitute more than half of the incoming freshmen. The ADDU hopes that with intensive practice and instruction, these students would be able to bridge gaps in basic education enough to pass college algebra at the ADDU. Give it the old college try, or else don’t let the revolving door hit you on your way out.

The 5-unit algebra class, by the way, is Ateneo’s response to the lack of good news from the employment of the bridging program. In the previous years, freshman applicants who failed the math subtest of the entrance exam were advised to take a 4-week refresher course before their entry to college. However, records show that while their performance improved, it did not improve enough for a significant number to survive college algebra.

So, we’re trying another way. Or, if you must, you can say that we at the Ateneo soldier on, as most schools are probably doing these days, too. Oh, well – it’s a lot better than sitting down and pointing fingers, don’t you think? Let’s hope that Gina and her teachers have a lot of paper, pencils, and chalk, as well as a well-developed ear to really hear what students have to say when gently asked “Why did you do it that way?”

Maybe then they would be able to adjust teaching strategies to elicit from the poor students that “a-ha! moment” complete with internally-driven sounds of magic, more glorious than any preprogrammed computer effect. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail.ilagan@gmail.com."Send at the risk of a reply," she says)