Math Olympiad craze good or bad?

Source:Global Times Published: 2009-4-27 0:01:40

By Ao Lin

Chinese education expert Yang Dongping recently launched a vehement attack in his blog on China's "Math Olympiad" (MO) education. Nowhere else has it gained more popularity than in China.

It is an after-school course that aims to train primary, junior and senior high school students to tackle difficult math problems in various regional and national Math Olympiads and ultimately the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), the most prestigious international math competition for pre-college students.

A majority of primary school and middle school students in big cities take MO courses.

The popularity of MO education, however, has been criticized by Yang as doing young students more harm than pornography, gambling, and drugs, as it is overly-demanding, poorly designed, and commercially-oriented.

But in my view, there are justifications for the rise of MO education in China. It has a cultural and institutional basis that still has not outlived its usefulness.

In Chinese society math skills are considered a special barometer of a persons' overall intelligence. Math is also the foundation for the modern sciences, whose progress has been given priority over liberal arts by China's government and educational authorities.

Math skills are also much more easily measured and objectively assessed than liberal arts.

When the entrance exam for junior high school was abolished to promote nine-year compulsory education in China, prestigious junior high schools began to use scores and rankings from credible math competitions to select talented students. Scores and rankings from Math Olympiads weigh heavily in the selections.

This is one of the main reasons for the MO craze. Most parents make their children study for the Olympiads in order for them to receive the best education, not so they can become mathematicians.

How effective has MO education been? It seems it works: Not only has it helped Chinese students win more gold medals in the IMO than students from any other participating country, but also a great many who eventually get admitted by top universities in China such as Peking University and Tsinghua University have benefited from MO education.

It seems that math skills, reasoning and creative thinking can be cultivated through intensive training and hard work. IMO competitions are dominated by competitors from places like Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan. These societies place high value on science and technology, see math as the foundation of science, and use similar training methods to teach math as the Chinese mainland does.

Chinese students show strong potential in math and many go on to careers which emphasize math skills, like the many Chinese working on Wall Street. Many of them design models for transaction and risk management which require excellence in math.

We need to focus on fully developing our talented young mathematicians without overly burdening them.

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