Jane Dunbar talks to four Christchurch schools about the training of their top mathletes.
The running has begun. The crowd is cheering. Hearts are racing. Who will win?
"The competition is very exciting,"says Andrea Knight, principal of Heaton Normal Intermediate School.
"It's very competitive, and the noise is just amazing. There are over 100 schools at each year level, all crammed into quite a small space. One school inches ahead, then another might. I almost don't breathe for the entire 30 minutes."
What kind of competitive sport is she talking about? What kind of adrenaline-racing, heart-pumping high-stakes sport has her breathless?
Are we witnessing the training of future Olympic athletes?
No, not the Olympics, but it is about the early training of people who will be key to our future - our mathletes.
Knight is talking about Cantamath - an annual maths competition for Canterbury schools that is part of a matrix of national training aimed at extending our young talented mathematicians.
In the United States, the Washington Post newspaper recently concluded that school maths competitions had become like competitive sport.
"Parents of mathletes follow stats and rankings as closely as others do for basketball. Competition is fierce: Top-ranked players begin training when young, attend summer maths camps, and pay US$100 (NZ$120) an hour for private coaching.'
The paper reported that the exploding popularity of high school maths teams coincided with the emergence of the digital economy, one that at its core was powered by mathematics.
"In contrast to the oil, shipping and retail magnates of generations past, many of today's wealthiest and most powerful executives built their empires on algorithms and probability in fields such as internet software and hedge funds.
"Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent - the successor to file- sharing service Napster - was a star on New York's Stuyvesant High School maths team.
"Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg - who runs the social networking company with more than 900 million users - was part of the top- ranked Phillips Exeter Academy team in New Hampshire."
In Canterbury, schools suspect their young maths stars are more interested in the challenge of the competition at Cantamath than thinking about future careers.
"I think they are able mathematicians who are keen and interested in solving problems and cannot resist a challenge, " says Dirk Gildenhuys, head of mathematics at Christ's College.
Nevertheless, he says, "they surely are aware that they are blessed and that, if they do the right things, the world is their oyster".
Other top-performing schools at this year's competition agree.
"Our students have made the link between maths and future jobs, such as engineering, " say Darelle and Richard Busfield who both teach maths at Cobham Intermediate.
But the particular appeal of Cantamath is in its adrenaline- racing combination of the mental and the physical; a time when the skills of a mathlete are truly put to the test.
Each team has to have a runner, who runs to the markers with their team's answers to various problems. If the answer is wrong, the runner races back to their team to let them know there's more work to be done. And it's all done against the clock.
Knight says some of Heaton's top mathletes are talented both in sports and maths, and that, to some degree, they train both mentally and physically for the contest.
In training this year, the school's teams set up a mini Cantamath competition outside on the courts, and the best runners were chosen for the running task.
At Cobham Intermediate, Cantamath is considered a competitive sport, say the Busfields.
"We would consider Cantamath to be a competitive sport because students work together in teams, and the physical aspect comes from the running of the answers to the markers."
Hillview principal Steve Foster says that while he wouldn't call Cantamath a sport, "it is definitely competitive and uses similar sporting strategies which the pupils thoroughly enjoy".
So how about the wider training of our mathletes? When should they start? How important is parental involvement? And do they get extended enough to reach their full potential?
At this year's contest, the team from Cobham Intermediate won at Year 7 level, Heaton won at Year 8, Christ's College Year 9 and Hillview Christian School at Year 10. Principals and teachers at these schools are unified in saying that the younger a child starts learning maths the better.
"Any kind of maths/numeracy should begin as soon as a child can comprehend; for example, counting steps or counting backwards as a 'rocket' blasts off, " say the Busfields.
Schools agree that parental involvement is as important to the training of a mathlete as any other kind of learning. But can there be too much parental pressure to succeed?
"For some students from some cultural groups the expectations to succeed are higher, " say the Busfields. "It appears some of these students are under too much pressure . . . but then when you look at how successful they are, maybe we aren't applying enough pressure on all of our students/ children."
At Hillview, Frost says we should beware of asking too little of our kids.
"I believe that a child will rise to high expectations [as opposed to irrational expectations] if they have the necessary support and belief to achieve.
"I have experienced this time and time again when adults have restricted a child's ability to succeed by saying, 'they are just a child'.
"We do a disservice to our young people if we don't set a good standard for them to achieve - one that is challenging and realistic.
"In working hard towards a goal, there is so much for a child to learn. Character traits that we highly value such as perseverance, patience, determination, courage, integrity, co-operation and wisdom are all developed in a child during the journey - this includes preparing and participating in the Cantamath competition. There has to be a healthy balance of pressure. For example, guitar strings that are too tight will break and strings that are too slack will underperform."
The schools all consider it important that they offer their best maths students room to extend themselves.
When Knight took over as principal at Heaton five years ago, she decided that she wanted the school to better cater for its top maths students.
"I knew there was no way that our top mathematicians could get the kind of learning that they needed from an average primary teacher. They work at around Year 11 level and primary teachers can't teach maths to that standard."
So she hired a specialist maths tutor to come in four days a week.
"We're doing the best we can to give them all the opportunities they need. We know that maths is one of those areas where people peak quite young - in their early 20s - so we aim to get them in a good space to head off to high school."
The other schools also put much effort into ensuring top maths classes can be accelerated in depth and complexity.
So is the training paying off?
Frost of Hillview points to his top-achieving student as an example of how well New Zealand is doing.
"Last year, he was placed in the top 0.0001 per cent of the 650,000 international students who sat the Australian exam. He was awarded one of four medals given to top- achieving Kiwi students."
Gildenhuys of Christ's College says: "Our best mathletes usually do very well in the Australian Mathematics Competition and the International Mathematics Olympiad. Both these events are truly international events. There are students from 40 countries taking part in this competition annually. New Zealand punches above its weight in both these events."
Funding, however, is an issue, says Gildenhuys. "More can be done to help our high-achieving students to reach their potential."
He adds that while talent is the key ingredient to the success of a mathlete, students must also be prepared to "put in the hard yards".
"Talent will take them a long way but the ones who will really be successful are the ones who also have the ability to work hard."
Do the teachers think their mathletes are given due credit for their talents, both by their peers and wider society?
All say that the schools make sure they acknowledge their mathletes' successes with awards and trophies and acknowledgments in assemblies and newsletters.
They also consider that peer approval is important, and that mostly there's plenty of it.
"Peer recognition is very important, " says Gildenhuys. "These students need to feel that their talents and achievements are recognised and valued by their peers and that being a good mathematician is not something to be sneered at."
At Cobham, "the mathletes are congratulated and cheered among their peers for achieving highly", say the Busfields.
Within wider society, however, "we are not sure that they are recognised as they would be if they were achieving at a similar level in a sport".
And at Hillview, Frost says: "I think the media could possibly showcase their gifts and talents more. Perhaps we are afraid to do so because of the tall poppy syndrome or that everyone has to be seen to be as 'equal' rather than celebrate various achievements."
All schools wholeheartedly concur with Heaton's Knight, however, when she says: "We're very proud of what our mathletes have achieved."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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