Some repartees

My classmate, Maxis, posted his view on A-Levels:

“Since the AS exams are approaching (a couple more days for me), I figured it’d be nice to list the thoughts I’ve had about the program I’m in. So here goes:

1. The A-Level program should be renamed the Past Papers program, to give students a better idea of what it’s all about.

2. Preparing for the exams is like learning how to tie your shoelace, but with a few more rules. There is only one way to do it, and if you do it your way, be prepared to lose marks.

3. If you’ve discovered how painful it is to tie your shoelace three hundred times in succession, congratulations, because doing past papers feels just like that. I think everyone knows this. But we’re all adults now, so most of us just do it anyway without whining (much).

4. We have a name for those who can’t follow the rules of shoelace tying and adapt fast enough. We call them ‘weak’ students. Unfortunately, a large part of these students believe that there’s a problem with their mental capacity instead of correctly identifying that the program itself is flawed.

5. Apparently, not everyone is qualified to spend 1.5 years doing past papers. It costs 30 thousand ringgit to do past papers at my college. If you can’t afford this huge sum of money, you can try applying for scholarships. Sometimes I wonder if the price mechanism is malfunctioning. This Past Papers program is seriously overpriced.

6. At the end of the program, you’ll be awarded a certificate of achievement, if you successfully tie your shoelace perfectly under timed conditions. If you’re lucky, you’ll be featured in our local newspapers, along with your testimonial of how doing past years have benefited you.

7. Failure is discouraged in this program. All the work we put in (which includes bouts of anxiety and stress) is supposed to guarantee that we’ll succeed in the first try. In other words, we’re rehearsing shoelace tying day and night, because during shoelace tying evaluation, we have only one chance to do it right. This is out of touch with reality. In the real world there is no way of achieving greatness without learning how to cope with failure. What is the program trying to teach us?

That being said, I enjoyed the part where you get to meet new people and make new friends. I guess that’ll be the only thing worth remembering when I’m done with the Past Papers program.”

Here’s my reply.
“Let me present something parallel (or not so?), IMO.
In IMO (and other math Olympiad contests), we do practice past papers, and even spend hours (or sometimes, days) in contemplating these past papers. We learn insights, ideas, and new theorems. So, practicing past years need not to be boring–in this case it’s more of untying shoelace of different patterns instead of merely tying shoelace.

And yes, like A-Levels, in IMO we have only one time to do it right. If you screw the test, wait for next year.

However, IMO is different in the sense that there’s NO guarantee that you’ll be alright by doing past years, however much effort you made. Every problem in the contest will be new and unused in any other contest. For the easiest first problem for each paper, yes, we may succeed. But the third problem can be daunting even to strongest candidates.

And of course no one in the battlefield will be considered “weak”. Rather, it’s strong, very strong, or insuperable. There’s also no rules in IMO for problem solving: create your own reasoning process! (Note: doing your own way might be either easier or harder, depends. But as long as you solved it and have time to finish other problems that’s ok. Sometimes A-Levels work that way).

Back to A-Levels, yes we need practice to make “perfect”, but for some questions (like Data response in Econs, and for some structured questions in Sciences) the answers may not pop out to your mind just by doing past papers. That’s when flair comes in, just like in IMO.

There is, of course, some rules in A-Levels, like which steps do you need to write, or key words, but things don’t get as bad as you think IF we can reason out why comes the rules (like why xxx must appear as definition). The only obstacle is that, we prefer memorizing it. Maybe the flaw of the system is that, it deludes us into various kinds of memorizing blindly instead of reasoning out (which is mentally demanding, but rewarding).

As of failure? Once we fail, interrogations may come, but consolations come too. Depends. *Here again comes its limitation: sometimes it’s just half a year left when we deem ourselves unsuitable. (See note)

Conclusion: Shoelace tying isn’t as bad as you think–think of how you learn walking! I concede, though, that doing past papers can be boring. However, we can spark our interest by constantly learning our mistakes, not just memorizing answers (after all, in doing IMO past papers we faced failure and frustrations, but we never feel bored because when we read the solutions, we exclaim “hey I should have think like this!”)

And every system has its flaw. Even IMO has it (because it doesn’t reward contestants who are usually strong but perform sub-optimally on that day, and it covers only 6 topics in 6 problems). Perhaps, we just have to be optimistic.”

If doing past papers isn’t boring I wouldn’t have written such posts, but will keep doing my papers instead). Then I thought of something parallel: quantum physics. The effectiveness of a model depends on observations. In education, it’s the same: it depends whether the system nurtures wholesome students. The problem is that our view is often parochial: in the end do we care about the aim of education? Are we over-obsessed with grades and ignore other development?

* Note: I didn’t clarify what I meant contextually; it means that, we have only two weeks of trial periods on deciding our four subjects. The choice we made is perfunctory. In worst cases it took us two semesters before we thought of dropping a subject (especially for Further Mathematics), and we can’t take another subject by then because how on earth we can study the whole syllabus in one semester when we were fraught with three other subjects? Most importantly, it takes us time to discover whether we like the subjects we take. Eg for me, I still don’t know whether it is correct to take up econs in the expense of chemistry.

But to add on: meeting a bunch of awesome people (like Maxis said) is rewarding: one of perks of joining econs class. In my class some guys, girls and I together form a gang for outing and discussing until no time. And our lecturer testifies that we were more outspoken then science classes’ students. There may be different cliques in my class, but thankfully…the clique to which I belong comprises both gender.

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