Last month, the results of the TIMSS global math and science test for 2011 were announced. TIMSS, which stands for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, is a standardized test that is administered to Grade 4 and 8 pupils every four years. In 2011, 50 countries participated, including 10 Arab states.
The results brought some good news and a pretty heavy dose of bad news for the Arab world. The good news is that UAE pupils, while still below the average mark, were the best among their Arab peers. The bad news is that in almost every category, Arab states were at the very bottom; in fourth-grade math, the 10 lowest-performing states were Arab ones.
Even more worryingly, when one looks at the trends of these test scores over the years, in particular when comparing the results of 2011 to those of 2007, one notices a few clear improvements (Qatari pupils have made a high leap in their performance), but most Arab states show no significant progress.
At the top, one finds the usual high achievers: Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Finland … Indeed, Singapore’s pupils have shown such consistency at the top that US educators have recently been looking in depth at Singapore’s math and science curriculum and teaching methods. They have found some interesting ideas that they are now implementing in a number of US schools.
One of the main features of Singapore’s approach is its insistence on reducing the amount of material that teachers must cover in math and science classes.
In contrast to approaches that are rather widespread in our region (ones that I have been decrying over the years), Singaporean pupils are taught few topics and concepts, but these are explored fully and in many ways (experimentally, graphically, computationally, etc.) until they have been thoroughly mastered. Only then does the teacher move to the abstract concepts upon which the theories are built.
Another key feature of the Singaporean math and science education is its heavy usage of pictorial methods, teaching the pupil to draw up the problem, thereby seeing how the parameters relate to one another, and allowing him/her to devise a solution. This helps develop creativity instead of mechanical application of the method.
In the US, officials have expressed serious concerns over the continuous lag of American pupils behind their Asian peers. Indeed, this represents a real danger that inventions in various fields will soon be dominated by Asian countries.
If that happens, not only will the US (and most of Europe) have lost many of the low-level jobs, but even high-level jobs and innovative companies will be dominated by East Asia.
By Dr. Nidhal Guessoum, Professor of Physics and Associate Dean, AUS College of Arts and Sciences. This is Part 1 of an article that originally appeared in Gulf News’ “The Views” on February 1, 2013.
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