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Mon, Jun 29, 2009
The Straits Times
Doing problem sums? No problem

By Ang Yiying

THE best-selling author of Challenging Maths Problems Made Easy has his two sons to thank for his motivation.

Mr Ammiel Wan, 35, a teacher of nine years, first wanted to get his two sons, aged seven and five, to start thinking critically.

He and his counsellor wife do not just dish out answers. Rather, he said: 'When they ask us a question, we're not so quick to answer. We ask them questions to get them to think.'

He soon realised that for learners in mathematics to give the right answers, they must first understand the context of a question. So, he developed a framework called the cognitive conceptual approach to help pupils decipher their problem sums.

Mr Wan, who is the dean of curriculum at Catholic High School (Primary), pointed out: 'There's a story in the numbers but students sometimes don't see that. They don't see the relationships and see the numbers in isolation.'

His approach gets pupils to identify concepts, and apply the best solution.

Typically, a problem sum might read something like this: John is 1/3 of Mary's age; in 10 years' time, John will be 1/2 of Mary's age, how old is John?

To solve it, pupils first have to recognise the concept of constant difference: when the difference between two or more quantities stays the same when an equal amount is added or subtracted from them.

Pupils may get confused when units are changed to apples or oranges or money.

But Mr Wan feels that exposing pupils to the same concept - but in different contexts - will help them to identify problems better, and apply the best solution.

His approach has had dramatic results: improved grades, faster work and more distinctions. It has caught on too, at other schools.

The Ministry of Education Teachers Network even published his book in 2006, titled Challenging Maths Problems Made Easy, which has since sold more than 14,000 copies at Popular bookstores and through direct school orders.

The Nanyang Technological University business graduate, who also completed his Masters in Education there, developed his concepts over four years while teaching maths at St Andrew's Junior School.

When he was transferred to teach the gifted stream in Catholic High School (Primary) in 2004 and became the school's maths head of department a year later, he applied the cognitive conceptual approach to the school's Primary 6 cohort.

Last year's batch of Catholic High School Primary 6 students logged a distinction rate of 79.4 per cent for maths, an increase over 2004's batch, which scored 61.6 per cent distinctions.

The method is now used at all levels in the school, and at more than 10 others, Mr Wan has trained department heads and teachers.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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