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UPDATED: August 17, 2015 No. 34 AUGUST 20, 2015
Is Olympic Math Really Such a Big Deal?


At the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) held in Chiangmai, Thailand, in July, the U.S. team won gold while the Chinese team, which had won 18 championships in the past quarter of a century, came in at second place. This result soon became a talking point across China. For years, Olympic math has been considered a strong point of China's oft-criticized education system, as the Chinese team could always be relied upon to secure a gold medal. Participation in Olympic math was also once used as an important yardstick in the recruitment of students for top middle schools and universities. Over past decades, students who performed well in Olympic math competitions could attain extra scores which were added to their original score in college entrance examinations, some could even go to prestigious universities without taking entrance exams. This trend, however, saw students struggling with ever-mounting academic pressures. For this reason, the Ministry of Education banned Olympic math courses in primary and middle schools.

Chinese students' recent IMO performance, however, has triggered fresh debates on whether the decision to put less emphasis on Olympic math was the right one.

Chen Zhiwen (China Youth Daily): Comparatively, American universities continue to favor winners of Olympic math competitions. These students always tend to be successfully admitted into prestigious universities. If you want to go to U.S. colleges, overseas study consultants will usually inform applicants of the importance of certificates such as those taken from Olympic math competitions. Such accolades can even compensate for a variable GPA. A prize from an Olympic math competition is often seen as the best evidence of a student's academic capabilities.

Olympic math has experienced ups and downs in China over the past few decades. Especially in recent years, it has been demonized. It has been blamed for various problems in primary and middle schools, in particular the heavy academic pressure on the students.

Ever since the test for entering junior high school was cancelled, math has been used as a criterion to measure a student's academic performance. The most authoritative proof of this capability is undoubtedly one's score in an Olympic math competition. As a result, the craze for Olympic math prevailed for years. However, controversies about Olympic math have been mounting since 2009.

At the same time, prestigious universities have also been held accountable for imbalanced distribution of educational resources and difficult application tests by some education experts. It seems that were these prestigious universities to lower their threshold for recruiting students, a number of educational problems would become a thing of the past. However, if these universities were to do so, the overall quality of education would undoubtedly slip and the education and training system that produces top talent would be at risk of collapse.

As far as China's education is concerned, it is not particularly a useful exercise to compare ourselves to other countries. We need to develop an effective education system and models for nurturing talent , based on China's national conditions and its cultural realities on the basis of a comprehensive understanding of higher-level educational concepts. Some so-called education experts would also be well advised to get to know more about China's education system, so as to avoid inadvertently misinforming the public, the government and those working in education.

Wei Yingjie (Qianjiang Evening News): Since 1990, the Chinese team has won the IMO championships 18 times, while the U.S. team has prevailed only twice: in 1994 and in 2015, respectively.

As for this year's performance, some pointed the finger at the Education Ministry's cancellation of the policy of including Olympic math performance in student admissions for middle schools and universities. This accusation is groundless, as the policy was discontinued only half a year ago, but it usually takes students years of study in order to be able to participate in such a competition.

This year's IMO result aroused public anxiety as many thought it represented a loss of face for the Chinese. However, it has been revealed that this year's test was the most difficult since 1959. Of the 104 participating teams, 74 teams received a score of zero. You cannot expect yourself to be the perennial winner of such a difficult competition. Lots of future opportunities no doubt await these young competitors down the road.

In a sense, it's a good thing that the Chinese team did not emerge the victor this time. Simply put, there is an inordinate emphasis on this event. The public might learn to approach it with a sense of proportion. After all, it's only a competition. The original objective of this competition was to discover and encourage young people of mathematical talent. However, in China, the role of Olympic math has been distorted, rendering it an affiliate to examination-oriented education. As a result, training classes on Olympic math have sprouted up around the country. This goes against the spirit of the mathematical Olympiad and risks driving down genuine interest in math among Chinese students.

Another extreme opinion exists maintaining that Olympic math is absolutely useless. It holds that the competition is putting pressure on children and is damaging their intelligence. However, Olympic math does help to expand children's thinking in dealing with mathematical problems. The key is that children are willing to learn and to discover fun when approaching Olympic math questions.

Only about 5 percent of students possess the aptitude and interest necessary to learn Olympic math, so it's absurd to either demonize or blindly pay worship to the competition. It would suffice to treat the event as one taking children with an extra interest in math and using that interest to discover some mathematically talented students and encourage them to achieve more in their chosen field. IMO is a contest taking place among top mathematical students. Too much stress should not be placed upon it, and by no means should this event be seen as something directly related to a nation's dignity.

Chao Bai (Nanfang Daily): The IMO is seen as the World Cup of Math. This annual competition showcases the pinnacle of talent, logic and rational thinking. China has won 18 championships since it first took part in the event in 1985, which means that China does not possess an absolute monopoly on gold medals, as teams representing Romania, Iran and Bulgaria have also harvested gold medals. This is not the first time that China has lost out on the gold medal, so why such a strong reaction this time around?

Olympic math itself is neither good nor bad, but the problem lies in the frenzied attitude toward the event. For quite a period of time, Olympic math has gradually become a utilitarian tool on the path to higher education institutions. This is undoubtedly moving farther and farther away from the competition's original objective.

For this reason, outcries concerning the introduction of Olympic math courses in primary and middle schools have abounded over the past years. The difference between Olympic math and common math is like that between competitive sports and amateur sports. While those who are very good at certain sporting events go on to compete on an international level, most people take sports as a means of physical exercise. When it comes to Olympic math, it is something for those who are highly talented and interested in math, but not for the majority.

The loss of gold medal is neither a good result nor a bad one. We only need to treat it as a normal event. Moreover, we also need to prevent the return of all kinds of Olympic math training classes and courses.

Wu Xinde (www.wenming.cn): The debates on Olympic math seem to have died down, but on this occasion, the topic has now been revived with the loss to the United States. Some feel jealous and others angry, and so on. In any case, the majority are reluctant to accept the silver medal obtained by the Chinese team. Some view the loss as a kind of victory in itself, as it shows Chinese students are no longer so obsessed with Olympic math.

Neither reading of the situation is particularly valid. When it comes to competitions, there must be winners and losers. Table tennis and diving have long been seen as China's fortes sports-wise, but the Chinese teams nevertheless also lose gold medals to other teams in such competitions.

Another important point is that Olympic math cannot and should not be held accountable for China's exam-oriented education system. Various Olympic math competitions have been cancelled throughout China, but education is still operated under a framework that stresses examinations and scores above all other considerations. At the same time, those who are gifted in math are moving away from Olympic competition. What impact this move will have on the development of math in China is anybody's guess.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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