Finland, Harvard and fun math | Inquirer News

Finland, Harvard and fun math

LAST WEEK, we looked at Tiger Mothers, a term popularized by US professor and author Amy Chua to describe the ultra-demanding way she raised her kids who excelled academically and musically.

Do parents need to be tiger mothers and fathers to ensure that their kids do well? Not necessarily. Take Finland. Finnish parents are more laid-back than their Asian counterparts, but their children score high in international examinations.


Their secret? Great, highly trained, good quality teachers.

Joshua Levine, in “Finland’s Educational Success? The Anti-Tiger Mother Approach” published in Time magazine April 11, wrote that many Finns wanted to become teachers, making it possible for their schools to select the best.


This is not the case in most countries, such as the United States or the Philippines, where teaching as a profession is often looked down upon.

Levine gave these statistics: “In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, 1,258 undergrads applied for training to become elementary school teachers. Only 123, or 9.8 percent, were accepted into the five-year teaching program.”

The standards to be accepted into Finland’s education programs are stringent, indeed.

In the Philippines, education courses are primarily four-year programs and, frankly, any mention of an additional year has people up in arms. But in Finland, like many other countries in Europe, five-year programs are the norm.

Moreover, every single teacher in Finland, whether he/she is teaching in elementary or high school, is required to have a master’s degree. In the Philippines, only 18 education units are needed for any teacher.

Levine quoted Jari Lavonen, teacher education head at the University of Helsinki, who said, “It’s very expensive to educate all of our teachers in five-year programs, but it helps make our teachers highly respected and appreciated.”

In the Philippines, lack of funds is always a problem. But quality teaching requires training. More training means better teaching and better professional growth, and—consequently—more respect from students, parents and the society at large.


Because of the high quality of their teachers, Finnish parents do not feel the need to supplement their children’s schooling with programs outside school. Dan MacIsaac, a teacher trainer specialist from New York agrees.

Levine quoted MacIsaac: “[Finnish] teachers are much better prepared to teach physics than [American teachers] are, [so] the [Finnish parents] get out of the way. You don’t buy a dog and bark for it.”

The solution to tiger parents? Tiger teachers.

I thank Isagani Cruz, educator extraordinaire, for alerting me to Levine’s article.

Harvard entrance exam

Harvard University is one of the best, if not the premier, university in the world, despite frequent grade inflation in many courses. A joke circulating in the Ivy League is, “It is hard to get to Harvard, but easy to get an A once you are in.”

Perhaps Harvard students today are extremely smart—certainly smarter than those of a century ago.

Or are they? Here is an actual Harvard exam in 1869, uploaded by Alison Leigh Cowan in the blogs section of the New York Times. In her accompanying article, “Remembering When College Was a Buyer’s Bazaar,” Cowan says that a century ago, Harvard was so eager to get applicants that it assured everyone that the entrance exam was easy.

Here are sample questions from 1869:

Translate into Latin: “In the first of the spring the consul came to Ephesus, and having received the troops from Scipio, he held a speech in the presence of the soldiers, in which, after extolling their bravery, he exhorted them to undertake a new war with the Gauls who had [as he said] helped Antiochus with auxiliaries.”

Greek grammar (all Greek words must be written with their accents): Give an example of elision. In what words does the accent of the elided vowel disappear with the vowel?

History and geography: Where is the source of the Danube? Of the Volga? Of the Ganges? Of the Amazon?

Algebra: A man bought a watch, a chain, and a locket for $216. The watch and locket together cost three times as much as the chain, and the chain and locket together cost half as much as the watch. What was the price of each?

Plane geometry: Show how the area of a polygon circumscribed about a circle may be found; then how the area of a circle may be found; then prove that circles are to each other as the squares of their radii.

About 87 percent, 185 out of 210 applicants, passed the 1869 exam. What do you think the passing rate would be today?

For the rest of the questions, go to

Fun math for teachers

Abstract mathematics concepts are best learned through concrete activities. Theoretical principles can come alive through games, poems, art, particularly for preschool and elementary school students.

Last month, Scholastic Book Fairs Philippines asked me to do a hands-on math workshop for teachers in Bulacan. For an entire morning, we had fun doing number games, rhymes, stories, designs—all meant to make arithmetic and problem solving challenging but fun.

Due to popular demand, I agreed to do a more extensive “Fun Math” workshop again in Manila. On May 25, 9 a.m.-12 noon, the seminar will focus on math activities for preschool up to Grade 3. The next day the seminar will center on hands-on activities for intermediate grades (Grades 4-6) and up to the first year of high school. The sessions will be held at the Plenary Hall of Greenhills Christian Fellowship (behind Robinson’s Galleria) in Pasig City.

Slots are limited. Those interested can contact Scholastic Book Fairs at tel. 9001535 or e-mail [email protected]

E-mail the author at [email protected]

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TAGS: Education, Finland, Math, teaching
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