Tuesday, February 21, 2017

RSM International Math Contest

Sometime the first week of February, the RSM offers an on-line math competition. For the second year, I had J1 and J2 work through the problems at grade 3 and grade 4 level.  This post is about our thoughts on competition, but I end with a problem from the contest that had us debating.

Compete and win!

To get it out of the way, let me explain my interest in the competition and why I had the kids enter. Above all, I was curious about the problems and expected they would be interesting challenges. We found the puzzles last year interesting, so I was pretty sure this year's collection would also be nice.
While I know that there are tons of excellent activities, I couldn't resist making use of this resource when someone thoughtful had put together a convenient collection in one place.

Second, I am curious about levels and assessments. What types of questions does RSM think 3rd and 4th graders should be able to answer, but find challenging? How difficult would our two little ones find them? Since we are currently operating outside a standard curriculum framework, it is hard for me to judge where they are or what we should expect of them. Admittedly, there are other ways I could form this assessment, but they take more effort.

Notice that I don't really care about how well they perform on the test. It is interesting information for me, but I don't need them to do well.

P has a different view. She was an olympiad kid and sees competitions as the easiest way for our kids to distinguish themselves. You know the anxiety: if they don't win competitions, they won't get into Harvard, they'll end up on the street somewhere.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the kids are getting a mixed message about the importance and reason for participating in competitions. This year, J1 was particularly sensitive. He was very resistant to doing the RSM test. I spent a lot of time talking with him. Mainly, I wasn't hoping to convince him to do the test, but I wanted to explore other issues related to the expectations he feels on himself, his relationship with J2, and his mindset about his own learning.

I am trying to communicate:

  1. effort and progress are important, starting point and base ability aren't. I know this is debatable, but I'm talking about the differences between my kids where I'm on pretty firm ground.
  2. there are many aspects to math and mathematical ability. Calculating and answering questions quickly are facets, logical reasoning, strategic thinking, spatial reasoning, asking good questions, gathering data, exploring connections, etc, etc are all components, too.
  3. time isn't important. One issue with the RSM test is that it is timed. This goes in the face of our repeated efforts to emphasize that the time it takes to solve something is not a key consideration. To help with this, I screen capped the questions so he could work on them after the official time had expired. Note, however, his recorded performance on the test was based on work within the contest rules. 
  4. Math is not about right answers.
The next section might help illustrate that last point.

Which area do we want?

As mentioned above, one of the questions from grade 4 cause us to argue among ourselves. I'm paraphrasing slightly:
Two tennis ball machines stand on opposite ends of a 25 meter by 10 meter court. The yellow machine shoots yellow balls that stop on the court 2 meters to 16 meters from the yellow machine's side. The green machine shoots green balls that stop on the court 5 meters to 20 meters from the green machine's side. Find the area of the court that has balls of either color on it.
Here are some ideas from our discussion:

  • Option A: we want to find the area of overlap, because that's the only place we could find balls of either color.
  • Option B: we want to find the combined areas, because that's where we could find tennis balls, either color.
  • Option 1: the area with green balls is a rectangle, the area with yellow balls is a rectangle.
  • Option 2: think of the ball machines as single points, shooting balls at various angles and various distances. the target area for each machine is an intersection of of a circular ring and a rectangle. This idea came from J2 when we were looking over the grade 4 questions after time had expired.
To answer the question, choose either A xor B and choose either 1 xor 2. So, what is the right answer?

I think the right answer is to have this discussion, to encourage multiple interpretations (with justification), to see how the answers compare, to think about what other things we could do to make the intended interpretation more clear (a diagram seems the most obvious), to recognize that this is part of the richness of math and it can't be represented by a single numerical answer on a timed test.

1 comment:

  1. This is very much in my wheelhouse. I go back and forth as well about the contests. They can provide a sort of benchmark against peers and when someone does well that's fun. But because of the time pressures ultimately I don't think that's super interesting. The value lies in the generally superior question quality depending on the contest. So if you do the problems on your own, at your leisure they are often better especially if a kid is just running out of time. But on the other hand, the competition itself motivates some kids to struggle on and sometimes elicits superior performance. Someday I'm going to try my hand at running one and see if I can correct some of the faults.

    Basically, we need more Julia Robinson Festivals. (Which I'm helping out at locally this weekend)

    Good luck