Viral maths question explained

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Stuff journalist Andy Fyers explains how to solve the Singaporean maths question that went viral and stumped even the wisest among us.

It's the maths problem which left the internet nonplussed — but one Kiwi maths teacher hopes to see more of these kinds of questions in New Zealand classrooms.

The mind-boggling problem was posted by a Singapore TV presenter to his Facebook page over the weekend and quickly went around the world, baffling readers.

There was initially some confusion over the age group of the students the question was intended for, but the authors of the puzzle, the Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiad, later clarified the question was meant for a maths contest involving 14 to 15-year-olds.

It was a "difficult question meant to sift out the better students" in the contest, the organisers said.

Christchurch maths teacher Stephen McConnachie, who managed New Zealand's own Maths Olympiad team for three years, said problems such as the one that went viral were useful in challenging the negative stigma people often had towards maths.

"I'd love for recreational maths to have a better reputation in New Zealand."

Maths at school was often only associated with the skills, so students didn't get a chance to see how it could be practically applied, he said.

"In music, you learn about time signatures and key signatures and crotchets, then you make beautiful music. It's the same with maths — you learn about the skills so you can use them to do problems and get that buzz when you solve a puzzle.

"It would be nice to see more of the problem-solving stuff in the classrooms so we then have students seeing a reason for the skills that they're learning."

McConnachie, who teaches at Middleton Grange School and is part of a newly formed group working to improve the profile of maths education in society, said he'd "had a go" at the viral problem and was able to solve it "pretty quickly".

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"It was a really nice question."

Problem-solving was not a "magical skill", rather, it was all about practice and using strategies that had been tried before, he said.

"That's how I solved that particular problem — I'd seen a problem in the past which involved eliminating options based on information you're given.

"We know the order that Albert and Bernard were given the information, and we know the order that they're talking in with those three statements we're given. You can build it up from there."

McConnachie said he was confident members of the New Zealand Maths Olympiad team — students aged from Year 9 to Year 13 — would have been able to easily tackle the problem.

Meanwhile Henry Ong, the organiser of the Singapore and Asian Schools Math Olympiad, said he was puzzled over how the question made it online in the first place.

"We were very surprised because students were not allowed to keep their mobile phones on them," he told The Straits Times

In his 10 years of organising the competition, he had never seen a question leaked before, Ong said. The student who took the photo could be disqualified, as it was considered cheating.

Students who participated in the competition, held on April 8, had been selected by their teachers or volunteered to compete.

The questions were set by a team of maths experts from Singapore and overseas.

Singapore's Ministry of Education told The Straits Times that the question was not part of the primary or secondary mathematics syllabus, and not reflective of the type of questions set in its mathematics assessments.

 - Stuff

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