Math educators, especially stressed [often self-inflicted] local teachers in Singapore, are always on the look-out for something funny or humorous to spice up their oft-boring math lessons. At least, this is the general feeling I get when I meet up with fellow teachers, who seem to be short of fertile resources; however, most are dead serious to do whatever it takes to make their teaching lessons fun and memorable.
It’s often said that local Singapore math teachers are the world’s most hardworking (and arguably the world’s “most qualified” as well)—apparently, they teach the most number of hours, as compared with their peers in other countries—but for the majority of them, their drill-and-kill lessons are boring like a piece of wood. It’s as if the part of their brain responsible for creativity and fun had long been atrophied. A large number of them look like their enthusiasm for the subject have extinguished decades ago, and teaching math until their last paycheck seems like a decent job to paying the mortgages and to pampering themselves with one or two dear overseas trips every other year with their loved ones.
Indeed, Singapore math has never been known to be interesting, fun, or creative, at least this is the canned perception of thousands of local math teachers and tutors—they just want to over-prepare their students to be exam-smart and to score well. The task of educating their students to love or appreciate the beauty and power of the subject is often relegated to outsiders (enrichment and olympiad math trainers), who supposedly have more time to enrich their students with their extra-mathematical activities.
Singapore Math via Humor
A prisoner of war in World War II, Sidney Harris is one of the few artists who seems to have got a good grasp of math and science. While school math may not be funny, math needn’t be serious for the rest of us, who may not tell the difference between mathematical writing and mathematics writing, or between ratio and proportion. Let Sidney Harris show you why a lot of things about serious math are dead funny. Mathematicians tend to take themselves very seriously, which is itself a funny thing, but S. Harris shows us through his cartoons how these symbol-minded men and women are a funny awful lot.
Angel: “I’m beginning to understand eternity, but infinity is still beyond me.”
Mathematical humor is a serious (and dangerous) business, which few want to invest their time in, because it often requires an indecent number of man- or woman-hours to put their grey matter to work in order to produce something even half-decently original or creative. The choice is yours: mediocrity or creativity?
Humorously and irreverently yours
Adams, D. S. (2014). Lab math. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
Harris, S. (1970). What’s so funny about science? Los Altos, Ca.: Wm. Kaufmann, Inc.
© Yan Kow Cheong, August 20, 2015.
Check out an inexpensive (but risky) way to make a Singapore math lesson less boring: The Use of Humor in Mathematics. The author would be glad to visit local schools and tuition centers to conduct in-service three-hour math courses for fellow primary and secondary math teachers, who long to bring some humor to their everyday mathematical classrooms—as part of their annual 100 hours professional upgrading. Please use his e-mail coordinates on the Contact page.
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