Pisa: What it really takes | Inquirer Opinion

Pisa: What it really takes

/ 05:04 AM December 12, 2019

A sold-out concert, with all the fans standing, was held in a rectangular field of size 100 by 50 m. What is the best estimate of the total audience: 2,000, 5,000, 20,000, 50,000 or 100,000?

For years, I have asked this question, from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) of teachers, students, parents, executives, professionals. Most choose 50,000 or 100,000.

Even if they have “forgotten” formulas, I guide them toward what “area” entails. Then they realize their initial estimates are too high. We tackle more questions: walking pace, earthquake probabilities, children’s heights, Antarctic map. Through the years, out of the roughly 9,000 participants I have met, only 20 high school and college students, and two bank executives, have gotten all correct.


Most fail to get even one right. But after I guide them on the solutions, participants say they like the mental workout, and complain that they have never been exposed to such.


Starting from the late 1990s, when our country ranked near the bottom in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS), the DepEd, and later on, the DOST, partnered with top universities to train public school teachers.

To this day, my colleagues and I help teachers in math and science graduate education. We discuss pedagogy and content, and most challenging of all, how to think and help others do so. With a robust economy, never-ending reforms and tech advances, theoretically, education should have improved. When I demonstrate math modeling for Grade Six students for Teach for the Philippines, discuss critical thinking for Metrobank’s Outstanding Teachers and Educators, or analyze regional gifted trainings for the Mathematical Society of the Philippines, I emerge hopeful.


But patchwork efforts are not enough. Today, thinking is often outsourced to tutors, cheat sheets, Google. Good intentions often pave the road to you-know-where.

Since our bottom Pisa rankings became public on Dec. 3, I have been asked to join think tanks and lead studies to “avert the decline.” But our dismal results are not surprising, given our long-failing test scores, malnourished children and politicized education.

Raising the bar spans not just a presidential administration or two, but a generation or more. It demands a shift in national culture, from families to schools, businesses to government. What exactly do we value?

We rightfully celebrate our Southeast Asian Games athletes and Miss Universe winners, but not our victorious Philippine teams in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). Readers still ask about my science column “Eureka,” recognized internationally in 2010 by the Third World Academy of Sciences. “Eureka” used to appear in the Science and Learning sections, but these closed down, because advertisers prefer other things.

Instead of rigor, our schools increasingly require gadgets for children, even if indiscriminate screen use does not generally lead to better learning, and may be linked to health issues.

Unmoved by emotions or “bola,” math is austere. It appears forbidding in a society where “who” matters more than “what” you know, education reforms are poorly implemented, innumeracy is bragged about, citizens are distracted by smartphones and entertainment is prized above all. We are defeated before we have even begun.

Pisa requires deep thought, not shortcuts. Thinking is not easy, often not “fun,” whatever the “innovation.” But it is essential, now more than ever.

In the 2000s, a Singaporean deputy education minister chatted with me about the IMO.

“You are not a mathematician,” I told him. “You know about the IMO?”

“Of course,” he said. “Our Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, takes IMO seriously. Doesn’t your government do the same? Your country has a lot of natural resources. Our people are our most important ones. We prepare them the best we can.”

Instead of knee-jerk responses, first try the Pisa tests online, and see what doing well demands.

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Queena N. Lee-Chua, a math professor at Ateneo de Manila University, writes on business for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

TAGS: Commentary, Pisa, Programme for International Student Assessment

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