Parents of children entering primary school are getting worried whether their 6-year olds can cope with the higher order thinking skills (HOTS) format in Mathematics -- popularly called “HOTS Maths” -- under the Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Rendah (KSSR) and some International School Mathematics Syllabus.

So what is the fuss all about? Like in many countries, Malaysia’s education system has made a positive move to introduce HOTS in our school curriculum as part of the government’s effort to implement international education standards and to prepare our children for the needs of the 21^{st} century. In 2013, HOTS was finally introduced in Mathematics and Science, at the same time sparking off debates regarding the readiness among teachers and students. To put it simply, our students will now have to acquire skills like critical thinking, which is outside the educational context of many parents. Parents are worried they are unable to help their children. The results of this year's UPSR, which was based on HOTS questions, also do not look very positive. Only 1.1% of students scored straight A’s compared with the 2015 UPSR (non-HOTS) which had 8.65% straight A’s.

Let us hear from Seriously Addictive Mathematics (S.A.M)’s Managing Director C.K. Gan and Operations Director K.K. Lee on how their Maths learning and enrichment programme, which is modelled after the world-renowned Singapore Mathematics, can help your child to not only tackle HOTS type of Mathematics but also develop skills like critical thinking and logical reasoning, which are essential for your child’s success in life.

Kiddy123: Mr Gan, for a start, could you tell us why our Malaysian school children are having problems with HOTS Maths? Is it because they have been learning Maths in the “wrong” way all these years?

*C.K. Gan:* I believe that many teachers are still finding it hard to cope with HOTS teaching, or they can’t deliver what the KSSR framework requires. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that students who learn Mathematics by memorising, repetition and rote learning are among the lowest achievers. Unfortunately, a majority of students in Malaysia seem to be taught to learn Maths like that -- routinely and procedurally. Many tuition or learning centres continue to apply methods that are merely to score A’s, without actually developing the student’s understanding. They use various sets of steps that the student memorises and applies in order to strike the right answer. Malaysian children have been learning this way for many years, and the teaching method is still largely practised by many Malaysian teachers today.

Sad to say, in the PISA survey in 2012, Malaysian students ranked 52 out of 65 countries. We are certainly good in calculation or numerical computation, but we are not delivering the problem solvers that our country needs in the future. Our teachers today are also under tremendous pressure to cover the many topics in Malaysia’s syllabus within a limited period of time. They may not have time to go in depth, so they just “touch and go” – to the detriment of the child.

Kiddy123: In your opinion, how should children be taught Mathematics?

*C.K. Gan:* No memorisation, repetition or rote learning. Teachers need to develop the children’s understanding visually and conceptually, and relate Mathematics to something relevant to them. Teachers need to focus on the conceptual part in Mathematics, for example, the concept of 3 x 2, and not just “3 x 2 = 6”. Students must understand Mathematics relationally, such as how this happen, and why it happens. For e.g., they should be exposed to the map of the location, not just a one-direction instruction to the destination. A lesson should always be combined with anchor tasks so that students are able to understand how the lesson applies to something relevant to them. Using tools, pictures and graphics can help children to understand the conceptual part, and relate to the numbers and operations. Importantly, learning should be fun so as to develop the students’ interest in Mathematics.

Kiddy123: We understand that S.A.M’s curriculum is modelled after the world-renowned Singapore Mathematics, which has enabled Singapore to consistently score among the top three countries in international benchmarking studies like the TIMSS and PISA. Could you tell us how S.A.M’s programme can help our children to cope with “HOTS Maths” in school.

*C.K. Gan:* Unlike other Maths programmes that emphasises memorisation, S.A.M focuses on problem solving. S.A.M’s teachers are trained to provide a context for the lesson so that it means more than merely getting the correct answer on a worksheet. The objective is to engage students through enquiry-based learning. Students will be questioned and connected to the concept. When this is done effectively, students see the connections between what they’re learning and real life situations. In the process, they gain interest, self-confidence and enthusiasm.

Kiddy123: Would you say that S.A.M’s programme is much more than just getting our children to score A’s in Maths? What other benefits will children gain from S.A.M?

*C.K. Gan:* S.A.M is a unique programme. We don’t emphasise merely on academic results but on enabling our students to develop skills like critical thinking, logical reasoning and metacognition that are essential for problem solving. These skills will eventually help them to score A in the exam. The problem solving skills that our students gain through S.A.M’s programme will help them not only in their learning of Maths but in their personal development and how they handle issues later on in life – whether it be in their family, school, university or workplace.

Kiddy123: What about children who are slow learners? Can they keep up with S.A.M’s programme?

*C.K. Gan: * S.A.M is an enrichment programme that is designed to tailor to the learning abilities of each child. We individualise the programme for each child and let them learn at their own pace. We don’t always follow their level in school. Every new student is assessed to gauge his/her level, then we start from there. Whether you are fast or slow learner, we will adjust the program to your learning pace. Our objective for slow learners is to help them to learn enough to cope with the subject. For fast learners, we continue to challenge them to achieve more.

Kiddy123: How about parents, can they help their child in developing higher order thinking skills where Math is concerned?

*C.K. Gan:* Maths is a complex subject. It requires proper training to deliver HOTS teaching. Unfortunately, not many parents are trained. Parents may help their child to solve a particular problem, but that doesn’t mean the child learns something from there. S.A.M emphasises on teacher training. We provide regular training classes for our teachers to ensure they constantly upgrade their knowledge and teaching skills. Teacher training is a long and important journey, and we have invested heavily in training so that our students can get the maximum benefit from their S.A.M programme.

S.A.M’s Operations Director K.K. Lee is responsible for the programmes in S.A.M’s 40 centres throughout Malaysia. Let us see how their programme helps children to solve HOTS Maths problems.

Kiddy123: Mr Lee, could you please tell us what exactly comprises a HOTS Maths problem.

*K.K. Lee:* In the past, Maths questions will provide the numerical values that the students can use to calculate the required answer based on a formula that they have previously been taught. HOTS Maths is not like that. In some problems, the numerical values or the formula may not even be given. The students will have to seek the meaning of the problem, interpret and analyse the situation themselves, all of which requires them to think critically and make inferences or generalisations to solve the problem. As such, it is not easy to teach on solving a HOTS Maths problem.

Kiddy123: So how does S.A.M teach children to solve HOTS Maths problems?

*K.K. Lee:* Well, the truth is no one can teach children to think. However, at S.A.M, we can provide children endless opportunities to think. We create the right environment for learning and use our specially designed tools, bar models, pictures, and worksheets to guide our students to think and to see things differently. Our teachers are trained not to give the answers but to help the children to think by asking them appropriate questions. We do not teach students to use a formula or procedure to get the answer to a Maths problem; the focus is on the child exploring the information provided, questioning and finding out what the problem is about, and understanding the “what” and “why” to get the answer. If they get it wrong, we use that as another opportunity to help them to think further. The child must understand the processes, not just memorise the procedure. If the child merely learns by memorising, he or she will be stumped when faced with something out of the ordinary in a Maths problem.

Kiddy123: Is that what HOTS Maths is about? Being able to think and reason out things?

*K.K. Lee: * Yes, these are skills that will benefit the child the rest of his or her life. It may not be easy at first, but our teachers will guide, support, encourage and challenge the child. When the child makes the connection, we are able to see the joy of learning and discovery in him or her. These abilities build up the child’s self-confidence and with time he or she is able to learn easier and better.

Education systems all over the world are now focusing more and more on these higher-order thinking skills. It is no longer enough to know how to calculate. In fact, a Harvard researcher identified the top seven skills necessary for survival in the 21^{st} century and, of these, critical thinking and problem solving have been acknowledged as the two main skills that are vital for our children’s future. That is why at S.A.M, we teach our students a multitude of skills that can help them to solve any Maths problem they are presented with -- skills like critical thinking, logical reasoning, heuristics (finding alternative methods of solving problems), metacognition, etc.

Kiddy123: We can see the importance of these skills, but are young children able to learn these skills?

*K.K. Lee: * S.A.M’s programme is suitable for children from 4 to 12 years of age and is appropriate for those in government schools, private schools as well as international schools. Because every child is unique in their ability to learn and in the method in which they learn, we will design a customised learning program that is tailored to the child by first assessing the child through our Proprietary Assessment Test to determine his level of comprehension in Mathematics.

As Mr Gan mentioned earlier, our teachers’ delivery of contents is very important to the child’s learning. Our teachers are trained to help the child make the right connections in the way that is most appropriate to him or her. For example, younger children learn better using more manipulative methods. They need to touch and feel and work with their hands to learn. We use the CPA learning approach where we work from the Concrete to the Pictorial then to the Abstract. This approach works very well with young children and helps them to make the connections to see the whole picture in Mathematics.