Professor Aharoni, will Israeli students reach the world pinnacle of math again?

By Jonathan Lis Source: Haaretz, 5-25-10

Mathematician Ron Aharoni of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa is a founder of the Israeli Foundation for Math Achievement for All. About 19 years ago he became involved (“completely by accident,” he says ) in the teaching of math to children; he is the author of “Arithmetic for Parents: a book for grownups,” “The Cat That Isn’t There,” which he calls “an non philosophical book about philosophy;” and “Mathematics, Poetry and Beauty,” on the resemblance between math and poetry.

High schools will hold the math matriculation exams today. Professor Ron Aharoni, will Israeli students ever reach the world pinnacle of mathematics again?

It may never happen. Perhaps we don’t need to try to be first in the world and compete with Finland, Korea and Japan. Within our constraints, it isn’t certain we could do so even if we wanted to [in view of] low teachers’ salaries, huge numbers of students per class, money that largely goes to ultra-Orthodox education where classes are small, and even more wasteful spending. A different answer is that much of the education budget goes to the apparatus itself: Six percent of the budget in contrast to 1.5 percent in comparable systems around the world.

So, will the so-called Jewish genius lose its standing in the world academic arena?

The answer is no. Israel is a mathematics superpower, and somehow continues to be one, despite the statistics. There is a very good group of people controlling high-tech and mathematics in Israel at a high level indeed.

In your estimation, will we learn from the results of today’s matriculation exam that there has been an additional decline in Israeli students’ knowledge of math?

I can only speak as a professor in the Technion. The students who reach us are less and less prepared. Today, those accepted by the university, in the math department, too, did not necessarily score well on the matriculation exam.

And that’s strange, because the level of the exam has not declined. To the contrary, the demands are not less than those of 30 years ago. On the other hand, fewer students study math at the highest level (five points ). An even tougher problem is that hardly anyone at all studies physics at that level. Physics is no less important than math when it comes to the life sciences. Why aren’t they prepared? I simply don’t know. More students are getting a higher education these days; we also turn to weaker sectors of the population.

Are the matriculation exams worded correctly? What grade would you give them?

I’d give them an 80 – they are too technical. I’d be glad if they were less sophisticated and tested material connected to understanding. But the tests are definitely at a high level. They are a wonderful tool with which you can guide education for a very small cost. It’s hard to make changes in a gigantic system like the educational system, but the matriculation tests make this possible. If you change the nature of one test, you dictate the nature of all studies.

Isn’t the problem broader than that? You yourself found it difficult to teach middle school classes because of discipline problems. Parents spend much money for private tutoring, and the high-school teachers spend their energy on teaching the students how to take the tests, rather than on how to understand math. Perhaps the problem lies in the grade industry, and not in teaching methods?

Teaching is definitely aimed only at successful test taking. The main problem with higher mathematics is that there’s no set curriculum. It’s as simple as that. Hard to believe, but it’s a fact. The teachers teach without a plan. The subjects on the matriculation exam dictate what they do. The text books are not divided into chapters about algebra, geometry or trigonometry, but the different lists of exam questions.

Is the Education Ministry proceeding properly?

It has been going in the right direction for the last five years, and is attempting to create a new curriculum. A good word must be said about math supervisor, Hannah Perl.

But I’m sorry to say that the ministry is an extremely slow boat, a giant body that can’t be hurried. It took eight years to write the middle-school math curriculum, which is very unsuccessful.

Generations of students were raised on math books by legendary authors such as Benny Goren and Aharon Aspis. Are they responsible for the students’ deterioration?

These books are very good for their genre. They were created over many years and have been corrected and adjusted. But this is a genre of exercises – and not study. The exercises are often sophisticated. The poor students must solve complicated problems that sometimes contain five different elements, without their having studied each sufficiently. The classic example is the basic concept of a derivative. Text books approach it technically, as a slope on a graph.

Every Technion student will tell you that. That’s not understanding, but rather a misunderstanding of the concept. The correct definition of a derivative is “the rate of change.” Israeli children learn a huge amount of technical information. It’s important. But understanding is missing. I think that today what’s happening is an attempt to go in a new direction.

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