Are you terrified of numbers? Well, then maybe you have been introduced to math the wrong way, says Alek Zikic, Mathematics Coordinator at the British School of Kuwait. In this interview, this unassuming mathematician destroys many prevailing math myths, and reveals the common-sense logic of math that’s not only alluring but also aesthetic. He dwells on the importance of imparting life experience based education to children which opens up the correlation between numbers and their practical usefulness, killing the notion that math belongs to the highfalutin world of nerds. Read on and find out the challenges in teaching math in Kuwait and what can be done to resolve some of them.
Question: What is mathematics?
Answer: To me, mathematics, for everyone, is numbers and calculations, it is the rule that governs the laws of physics, it is the rule that governs how chemistry works, biology, and it explains everything, the universe.
Q: Is it possible to experience math in ways other than numerical functions?
A: Most definitely, for example there will just be logic problems, if you have a riddle; you will be tempted to use logic to solve it, and not necessarily using numerical mathematics. From the problem solving side of things obviously it is a massive application of mathematics.
Q: Tell us more about the connection between art and math?
A: Well, a lot of artists have used mathematics. It was in the post-renaissance era with the idea of perspective to scale, with a lot of Islamic art extremely geometrical all around us. A lot of geometry there, angles, repeated patterns. Mathematicians and artists such as Olla used a lot of mathematics within the art. Nowadays, a lot of things such as digital photography and the editing of that afterwards is all done using digital media and all that is done using mathematics in the programming. Sometimes even though you can’t see the mathematics, definitely it’s being used behind the scenes to ensure the final picture is perfect.
Q: What are the main challenges in teaching mathematics?
A: The biggest challenge there is just making sure that everyone is doing the right thing. We don’t want people studying mathematics just to get 100%. Of course we won’t encourage that but the real reason is the passion of the subject; you want to learn maths to be really good at it, understand it to apply it in the real world. There is the passion there for the subject, to solving the problems, to getting it right, which is so much more important than getting the test result. But I think the biggest challenge is making sure people are learning it because they want to not because they feel that they have to. I have realised that everyone here is very keen on mathematics and that is fantastic.
Q: Generally, students who are weak in math are regarded as dull. How important is math as a criterion to gauge intelligence?
A: I think it is fair to say that someone who is weak in math isn’t intelligent, definitely not. We will have a fairer way of things, for some of us a mathematical approach is the way to go and for others we excel in other fields such as linguistics, sciences, arts, philosophy, all sorts of things. Of course if you are weak in math, you might find it more difficult to do certain things in the sciences, but that doesn’t mean you are unintelligent.
Q: So a person can excel in math through hard work, and it has less to do with his natural abilities?
A: Hard work can get you an awful long way. You might not be the best and most gifted mathematician, you work hard, you concentrate, you think logically, you can eventually get there, I totally agree. However, there are some who are natural geniuses, and we have seen them many times in history, and they are often those mathematicians who discover or make links to mathematics. They are the most famous of them all.
Q: What is your opinion about our current teaching methodologies (in Kuwait’s context)?
A: In Kuwait mathematics is an extremely popular subject, very well respected and a vast majority of students do want to study maths. Here at BSK, it is one of the most popular subjects, actually in our sixth form department where all subjects are optional, I am very proud of the mathematics teaching basically. It is modelled on new techniques, lots of interactivity, the use of computers to enhance learning both at home and in the classroom. Our results speak for themselves where our students do extremely well.
Q: New teaching methods departing from rote learning are coming up. Are there any contemporary teaching methods that you favour? Why?
A: For me the best way to teach is to ensure enough communication. I don’t feel that I stand at the board and teaching, rote learning, students taking it in, is the best. I feel that students need to be engaged and involved. I don’t want to tell the students what the next step of the equation should be, I want them to give me ideas what we can do next, it might be wrong or right, but together we discuss it with the class and get to our answer. We learn new methods and strategies and techniques as a group, not as teachers telling the students what to do. We are a group of mathematicians and we work together, and I think that’s the most important thing.
Q: How is it possible to make math more interesting to children?
A: To be honest, it is already very interesting to children, especially the low years. We do a lot of fun games, making sure that they are practicing the times table, their numerical skills are growing as well as their logic and problem solving abilities. I think if you speak to children they’d often say that maths is one of their best subjects. They do enjoy it, they enjoy the success of getting things right, and as students get older they begin to appreciate how useful maths is to the bigger picture of the world. They understand its implications, how useful it is and why it’s really interesting for its own sake. They really start to enjoy the aspect of Algebra and they click together perfectly.
Q: Can a child’s interest in a subject be evoked? How should we deal with a child who naturally dislikes a subject like math?
A: I think we can evoke interest. And we do that by teaching, engaging an interest in lessons. We have to know the likes and dislikes; no child is going to shy away when they are faced with a teacher and classmates who are highly motivated, enthusiastic and passionate about something. And that passion does come from every student, they have to. They cannot be in a classroom everyday and not be part of that passion and start enjoying it. If there is an issue of course it might be that there is something they do not understand, so we work hard on that student to ensure they catch up a bit so that they can enjoy the lessons to the fullest.
Q: Is it fair to impose a set of academic curriculum on children with no consideration given to their natural abilities?
A: Most definitely. We are big fans here of students having a full range of the subjects and extracurricular activities. No students leave school with one subject under their belt. We need to make them rounded individuals ready for a modern world. We need to make sure each student is going to get a place into the top universities and the best way to do that is for them to prove that they are well rounded young people. At the age of 18 going into the real world, mathematics of course from my point of view, a maths teacher is phenomenally important as are all the other subjects and the extracurricular activities. Showing different sides of the personality through music, sports, art, is massively important. All the universities are looking out for those extra abilities on CVs and application forms not just the grades.
Q: What should an ideal classroom look like in your opinion in terms of layout, interactivity, study material etc.?
A: To me a maths classroom isn’t something that is always silent. A maths classroom should have whether it’s a discussion of the class with the teacher, communication in maths is so important. It’s much harder to explain yourself in mathematics aloud than it is to work it out. To say out loud and teach someone shows a different level of thinking. In the modern world of mathematics research in universities now, mathematicians don’t work alone any more; they work in big research groups often with other scientists. Back to school, I feel that in the classroom, students should have paired work, group work, we should have laptops being used, interactive work on display. Students should have everything that they need; it shouldn’t be just textbook anymore, although the textbook is massively useful. They need access to online web sources, materials and other things. When they want to do something there is a way and they aren’t being hindered by anything.
Q: What are the most common problems that students face in private schools in Kuwait?
A: I am not too sure here, in Kuwait I have only worked at BSK, so I haven’t seen the problems on both sides of the private and non private teachers. What I have seen from our students here is that they have been very happy here at BSK. We encourage them and they do indeed take up lots of extracurricular activities, lots of sports, music or art, we could say that there is a lot to do that time is precious. We work them hard in school, we give them lots of homework and study to do at home as well as their actual studies and we are quite proud of that. The problem to some of these students, there is too much to choose from. And they can’t do every sport, they can’t do every subject, they can’t take part in every musical production, they don’t have that much time in the day. I think that is probably the biggest problem.
Q: Is there a shortage of good teachers in Kuwait? What should be the ideal strength of a classroom for teachers to give maximum individual attention?
A: Again, from my experience at BSK here, I haven’t seen a shortage of good teachers in Kuwait. The school invests a lot of time and money in the recruitment process every year to ensure only the best teachers are brought teaching their specialty in a comfortable environment without high pressure from above. I do firmly believe after many years here that BSK is doing that year after year. We are not going to take in teachers that are mediocre. If they are not good enough they are not good enough for our students. We have the maximum time to find the very, very best. We do not accept medium teachers, only the best.
Q: The emphasis of traditional teaching methods is on rote learning. Does this kind of learning help in the learning of math?
A: Rote learning is dated, if I stand at the board and lecture the students, it might work for some students and it might not work for others, and that is not right. In our classroom every child must succeed, that’s our job that’s why we are here. And that’s why we employ a whole multitude of interactions of activities, of methods of teaching to be sure that every student learns, that every need is met. We are here to teach passions of subjects, we don’t look to bore the students; we make sure that they are an active part of every lesson. We facilitate their learning, not telling them what to learn.
Q: Shouldn’t the formulas also be workable in a logical manner?
A: Again, we are not in the business of telling students that this is a formula that you must use. We spend time explaining how these formulas come about, where they come from, which mathematician discovered it first, why they need it, why is it useful, so that when they start to use it they can appreciate the full use of it, not just this is something i have to do because my teacher told me to do it. Understanding what the formula is for, where it comes from, where is it going, how it connects to maths, how it connects to what you are going to learn in university, the bigger picture means you have a well informed child that is going to be extra successful in mathematics. For me the formulas are very useful in maths as they are all over the world, but they need to understand where it comes from and that makes it logical.
Q: Is rote learning good for the mental development of a child? Does it not make the reasoning side of his brain less exercised?
A: To some extent I must agree. If I am just telling a student lots of information with little explanation, little chance for him to question, and am just saying learn it, learn it, learn it, they are not going to have a good understanding. Take it they have a good memory at the end of it, they going to learn lots of things by heart, have they done any reasoning, probably not, have they done any problem solving, probably not, and again that as a method doesn’t work, we need to have the other side of the coin. We need to have interactivity, we need to have group work, the discussions, the problem solving, the logic, the riddle, the game, everything, because together that comes with a good wholesome mathematics.
Q: What do you mean by life experience of math?
A: In the modern world in this day and age, many things rely on mathematics and technical skills, whether that’s from services in the city, banking, insurance, consultancy, management, all of those areas are using mathematics in one way or another, some to very high levels. Get to industry, oil here in Kuwait, logistics, trade, shipping, all these use mathematics heavily, and it’s not just numbers, it’s not just numbers or money coming and out, there’s a huge strategy underlying this; algorithm, and that’s not even talking about the online side of the world. The amount of computing industry we have out there, software or hardware, all of which is run by computer programs, obeying the simple laws of mathematics. It really comes down to that. There’s hardly an area nowadays where you can work and escape mathematics. So we are ensuring that wherever our students end up they have sufficient background in mathematics.
Q: What has been the best day for you so far in the classroom?
A: There were so many days that you come out of each lesson and the students were happy, smiling, saying thank you on the way out. That was great, I really enjoyed that. You can see it from their faces, you can see that they have learnt something new, they’ve understood it, they’ve enjoyed it, and they’ve seen how it fits the bigger picture. It’s not one single day, but every day after day, you see these young people grow up, you see them mature as people day by day they get better as people and wiser. It is getting all that email saying thank you, sir, I have got my result, I passed everything.
Alek Zikic was born and raised in West London. After completing secondary school, he was accepted into Imperial College London where he graduated with a degree in Mathematics. He subsequently went on to gain his teaching qualification from Canterbury Christ Church University in England through the Teach First scheme. Before moving to Kuwait, Alek taught in West London for three years in a challenging school and completed a Masters part time in Educational Leadership. He is now in his fifth year of teaching mathematics at the British School of Kuwait where he currently leads the Mathematics Team. In his spare time, Alek enjoys reading, cooking, music and is a keen traveller.
By Iddris Seidu
Arab Times Staff