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Giving up on math

Posted December. 03, 2010 11:22,   


"Had I been better at math, my life would’ve been different.” More than a few people say this. Math is getting more difficult even on the national college entrance exam. As students move up in grades, they turn negative toward math, losing interest and confidence in the subject, according to researcher Park Seon-hwa and deputy researcher Sang Gyeong-ah of Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation at a symposium on national academic achievement evaluation and college exam data.

Koreans have a double standard in math. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment targeting 15-year-olds (10th graders), Korea ranked second in 2000, third in 2003, and first to fourth in 2006 depending on the field. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study targeting 13-year-olds (eighth graders), Korea ranked second with 597 points after Taiwan’s 598 in 2007. In the same study, however, Korea ranked 43rd out of 50 countries in confidence and interest in math. In other words, they kept good scores because they learned math through repetition but had low interest and confidence in the subject.

The study showed that attitudes toward math such as confidence was closely related to performance. Confidence in math, which used to be high in Korea, drops after students go from middle to high school. Low confidence usually means a lower score, and then students eventually give up on math. Math is a subject in which if anything is missing, the impact grows cumulatively and makes it impossible to catch up. This phenomenon usually occurs in middle school.

The curriculum is also crucial. The results of the international math and science test showed that Koreans are best in machine-like number crunching but not better overall than American students, who were well known for poor math ability. Math is called “the father of disciplines” because the subject involves fostering logic, abstract thought, generalization and criticism. The challenge is to prevent Korean students from giving up on math and fuel their interest and confidence in the subject.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)