Kam Raslan ponders if the ability at maths is a true gauge of a student’s intelligence
I am very bad at maths, or “math” as the Americans would say. Is there only one math or are there many maths? That’s how bad I am at it. I don’t even know how many there are of them. If I am asked what is 8 – 4 then I want to know what 8 has done to deserve having 4 taken away. And if I discover that 8 has done absolutely nothing wrong and that 4 loves 8 very much then my answer is “injustice!” Obviously, I failed all my maths exams and I lost all respect for my teachers because they kept insisting that I retake them. I mean, hadn’t they worked out what the result would be? And they said I was the stupid one. School was a long time ago and I don’t feel any sense of failure at being so bad at maths now but I do have a fear of numbers. I didn’t watch the movie Life of Pi, not because I thought the idea of a boy being stuck on a boat with a tiger was incredibly silly but because I still don’t know what pi is and I was afraid there would be an exam at the end. Just to be clear, I do know the answer to 8 – 4 (it’s Peru).
My school career started well and ended in complete disaster and I feel very ashamed of the reason why. When I went to my first proper school at the age of nine I was put in the bottom class. We were officially the stupidest kids in the school but I was instantly top of the class. I was the unassailable king of the class and I felt great about myself. My teachers understandably thought I might be quite clever so they moved me up into a smarter classroom. I was instantly and remained forever at the bottom of that class, which sapped my confidence and taught me that I was stupid. I had been the smartest kid in the dumbest class and now I was the dumbest kid in the smartest class. I feel ashamed to say this but if I had stayed in the stupid class then I would have excelled. Or would I? If the odds had always been stacked in my favour then would I have really known if I was actually any good or not? I would never have been truly tested.
Studies are always being conducted on which kids in the world are the best at maths so that we can know if our nation is top or bottom of the class. Students in Singapore, Shanghai and Japan always rank highly. But is the ability at maths a true gauge of a student’s worth? Because of my failure in maths I have to believe it’s not, although I am always in awe of anybody who knows how to split a bill at the end of a meal.
The beauty of maths is that its questions have definitive answers, and the answers are the same in Shanghai or Batu Gajah.
Japanese kids do well at maths because they have a clever technique of making calculations musical, in the same way that I learnt my ABC. Music sticks in the brain far more easily than abstract numbers and with this and the use of a tactile and then imaginary abacus Japanese kids are able to do complicated sums in their heads and at great speed. Japanese kids are top of the class at maths, but perhaps we should be looking at the way they achieve this and what it says about their society and not just be concentrating on the cold result.
School and me were not a good fit, but I think I did learn some things along the way. I learnt that humour will not always save you from being beaten up by a bully and that there are several very good reasons why that girl is out of your league. But I was extremely lucky that I went to some good schools where I learnt about music, drama, how to interact with people and perhaps most importantly, about the system. I left school feeling like an abject failure but then I started working in film where I discovered that sometimes, just sometimes, 8 – 4 does equal Peru.