MATHEMATICS EDUCATION IN SOUTHEAST ASIA:

MAJOR CONCERNS AND CHALLENGES

Bienvenido F. Nebres, S.J.

Ateneo de Manila University

Philippines

As the paper of Prof. Zhang and other papers for TSG 22 note, the countries of East Asia have been very successful in teaching mathematics fundamentals, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels. The performance of their students in all kinds of international comparative assessment bears this out.

Their concern is thus on moving forward and creating a methodology and an environment which would build on these achievements and move students towards greater creativity.

THE EXPERIENCE OF MATHEMATICS EDUCATION REFORM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

In Southeast Asia, notably in the bigger countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, the situation is quite different. The concern is the relatively weak achievement of students and the school systems in learning basic mathematics. The concern is thus on success in teaching mathematics fundamentals. The focus of attention over the last decades has been on:

- curriculum and textbook reform, a continuing search for a curriculum that would lead to greater success in teaching fundamentals
- teachers and teacher-training, a concern for the weak mathematics foundations of teachers and for a better pedagogy for them

The papers on mathematics education prepared for our TSG 22 from Indonesia (Susanti Linuwih), from Laos (Beth Southwell), from Malaysia (Lim Chap Sam) show that we need to continue to address these concerns of mathematics achievement and teacher capabilities and preparation in different ways. In the Philippines they remain the dominant topics of discussion.

Thus these concerns remain valid today in Southeast Asia. What needs reflection in ICME 9 and in the coming joint meeting in Singapore of the East and Southeast Asian countries (EARCOME and SEACME) in 2002 is the method we in the Southeast Asian countries have followed in curriculum and teacher-training reform.

Although our countries are geographically closer to the East Asian countries, our mathematics education has been more influenced by colonial history, notably by the United States and the United Kingdom. The typical method of reform from the United States has been:

- a new theory of mathematics education (new math, back to basics, problem-solving approach, realistic mathematics education, etc.)
- a pilot program, which usually succeeds in showing that the new theory is better than the old
- implementation of a reform program along the new lines across the country

While this approach may have worked well in the U.S. with its more decentralized school system and larger resources, assessment of the impact of such curricular reform in, say, the Philippines or Indonesia has not shown much improvement in mathematics achievement.

We might say that reform has focused on the intended curriculum (as carried out through a new curriculum, new textbooks, and teacher-training for this curriculum). Assessment years later of impact of the reform on the achieved curriculum shows little improvement. We might guess that the missing link might be insufficient attention to the implemented curriculum (what actually goes on in the classroom), not in specialized pilot programs but in a broad range of actual classrooms.

SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE

We have used this way of analysis in looking at the experience of improvement at the Ateneo de Manila Grade School and High School. In particular, over an intensive weeklong seminar we used:

(1)The TIMSS videotapes of actual classroom teaching in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, as a way of comparing how we ourselves teach mathematics

(2) Liping Ma’s "Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics", to reflect on the mathematics we teach to present and future teachers and how this mathematics relates to the mathematics they actually need in the classroom

(3) The description of the process of Lesson Study in Stigler and Hiebert’s "Teaching Gap", to reflect on how actual classroom experience can become the basis for curricular and teacher-training reform.

The experience was that it was very effective in helping teachers reflect on

- our way of teaching mathematics and that there are other ways from which we can learn best practices
- the mathematics content in the education of future teachers. There was much discussion of Liping Ma’s Profound Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics (PUFM)
- on how teachers and actual classroom experience can become the key element in an incremental process of curricular and teacher-training reform

Since I assume that the participants in TSG 22 are familiar with these studies I will not go into a description of them here, though I would be happy to discuss them further if necessary.

Our conclusion from our workshops at the Ateneo de Manila is that the concern for the Philippines and probably for other countries in Southeast Asia is that we do have to continue with curricular and textbook reform and with teacher-training reform. The challenge is how to have these efforts empirically based on actual classroom and teaching experience. The challenges to doing this are great for:

- this would require that the center and energy for reform would come from teachers and classrooms
- mathematics education departments and mathematics education experts should play supportive and empowering roles, rather than more dominant roles
- the mathematics education system would need to be organized for the learning from teachers and classrooms to be recorded, disseminated, discussed and evaluated for the larger system.

In any case, the challenge is how to center curricular and teacher-training reform more on the actual practice of teachers and classrooms and how to work in a patient step-by-step incremental process of improvement, as opposed to the "sweep away the past and begin anew" approach of previous reforms.

Since TSG 22 and the forthcoming joint meeting in 2002 of SEACME and EARCOME bring together mathematics education experts and teachers from East and Southeast Asia, this may be an opportunity for us in Southeast Asia to engage in a dialogue with and learn best practices from colleagues in East Asia.