Alice Ho’s unusual teaching methods turn math from drudgery to discovery for her students.
| PHOTO COURTESY OF MATH TEACH|
What is the shortest way between two places? Obviously a straight line. Now here’s a stumper—what is the shortest route between four places? In the same vein as the infamous Microsoft interviews that circulate in the jobseeker’s grapevine, this was the puzzle thrown up to an elite class of professors and undergraduate students. Volumes upon volumes of formulas and complex answers were produced in response, but in the end, the answer was given by a Japanese professor, with nary an equation in tow. Creating a prism-like structure made from shards of Perspex and nails, he slowly dipped it into a basin of soapy water and brought it up, revealing the answer in the surface tension created by the film of soap between the nails.
For Alice Ho, founder and principal of Math Teach, a mathematics learning center located in Siglap, such is the allure of a subject that is the bane of many a student’s school-going years. Over the last 35 years, she has developed a unique method of communicating complex math concepts through colors and everyday objects, all in the name of making math fun and comprehensible for students. For example, the precepts of the circle theorems are demonstrated by forming triangles on round plastic covers using colored pins, and inverse proportions are taught using a mixture of water and oil. “For math to be fun, it must be made more tactile—students must be able to visualize, see and touch what they are learning.
“Alternative teaching approaches like this, as opposed to rote learning, help students grasp the foundations. Once they have a strong understanding, it becomes easier for them as they advance to higher levels,” says Ho.
Her patented Five Color Coded Communicator teaching method, however, is not just limited to the basics of mathematics, but incorporated into more complex topics such as speed calculation and even Additional Math. “Many students stumble when faced with complex questions because they see the problems as one big chunk they cannot unravel.” Ho explains that the inspiration behind her teaching methodology was her previous working experience at a research lab which first instilled in her a love for separating and compartmentalizing a problem at hand into bite-sized portions.
The use of colors helps students to break down the question, helping them to understand the logic behind the laws used to solve the question. Other methods such as finger math equip students to tackle even double digit multiplications with ease without having to memorize multiplication tables; and simultaneous equations are taught using models. “Across the board, Singaporean students are ranked the best in Mathematics internationally, but in terms of world-class performance, we are nowhere near the Russians, Israelis and Chinese,” she observes. This is derived from the overriding mentality of Singaporean students to quickly arrive at the answer without taking time to analyze the problem at its roots.
With the success stories of countless students having benefited from Math Teach’s creative pedagogy, educational institutions like government and private schools have contracted it to conduct external programs in their classrooms, which now forms the main source of income for it. It also conducts programs for educators, including those who teach children with special needs, such as autism and Down syndrome. Additionally, there are classes for parents, who themselves become students as they learn how to better tutor their own children in the subject. During school holidays, special programs are designed to help children develop an interest in math in fun and easy ways—fractions, for example, are taught using yummy slices of pizza.
In the last three years, Ho has been traveling back and forth to the United States in order to explore the possibility of setting up a research center to study how math is taught and applied in different cultures around the world.
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