There is still a place for maths drills in primary schools

Marcus Goh
Yahoo illustration.

By Marcus Goh and Adrian Kuek

Grade Expectations is a weekly feature on education in Singapore. Expect fun activities, useful tips and insightful news on learning. It’s not just about your child’s grades – it’s about raising a great child!

Parents of primary school students are no strangers to drills for maths problems. A recent newspaper article outlined two common criticisms of the drills, especially with regard to the model method of solving maths problems.

The first criticism is that students can only solve questions in exams that are similar to ones that they have solved before. The second is that it was impossible to come up with an original solution for problem sums during exams, thanks to time constraints.

In defence of the way maths is taught in Singapore, here is why those criticisms are unfounded.

Angles, not angels. (Pixabay)

Unfounded criticisms

It is true that students can usually only solve maths questions they have practised – except that it applies to people of all ages, adults included. It is rare to find a person who can solve a problem the first time he or she or encounters it, let alone a child.

This is why we value work experience so much when it comes to hiring adults – the longer you have worked, the more likely it is that you have faced and solved similar problems. In the same vein, maths drills are “work experience” for students, so that they have the experience needed for exams.

The second criticism, that developing original solutions for maths problems during exam conditions is impossible, is factually accurate. But regardless of time constraints, it is difficult to develop original solutions for maths problems, period. In fact, the only people who develop original solutions for maths solutions are usually talented mathematicians.

To expect all of our students to be talented mathematicians is an unrealistic expectation, to say the least.

Numbers. (Pixabay)

In addition, maths problems at the primary level are not complex enough to warrant multiple solutions. There are, at most, a handful of ways to solve any given problem sum.

The fact is that what is learnt at the primary level creates the foundation for mathematics at higher levels. At the most basic level, students must practise until they’re familiar with the basics. Only then will they have the rudimentary skills required for more advanced problems.

Equations. (Pixabay)

How to make the most of maths drills

That being said, your child can get more out of their maths drills with the right mindset and focus. Here are three tips to speed up their improvement when doing maths practice problems:

1. Intentional practice

Ask your child to identify the topic and concept of each problem sum when practising. This will help them to be more deliberate in their drills, which means that they will gain a better understanding of maths. It will help them to connect the dots better, and see the relationship between the questions and what they have learnt.

Maths in session. (Pixabay)

2. Mindful practice

Ask your child to be focused on the problem, rather than to do it for the sake of doing it. This will help them to internalise the process so that it becomes second nature to them. Think of it as developing muscle memory for the brain.

3. Error analysis

When your child gets a question wrong, don’t just write in the correct answer and move on. Ask them to identify where they went wrong and how they could avoid it in the future. This will make them more aware of their weaknesses, so that they know what they should be careful about for future maths problem sums.

In what other ways can you make your maths drills more beneficial?

Marcus Goh runs Write-Handed, a creative writing studio. At the same time, he teaches Secondary English at The Write Connection. He has been a specialist tutor for English and Literature (Secondary) since 2005.

Adrian Kuek runs Joyous Learning, an enrichment centre that specialises in English, Mathematics, Science and Creative Writing for Primary. He previously served as the academic director of one of Singapore’s largest enrichment centre chains for over seven years.