Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Mathematical Olympics: You win with your mind not with your body

Joachim De Posada

By Joachim De Posada

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The Mathematical Olympics: you win with your mind not with your body

We are all very excited that the Olympics just started. I have worked the last four with different countries and I am sorry I am missing this one because I need to be in Mexico and Chile in the next two weeks.

This article, however, is about the other Olympics the one that no one writes about.  I am referring to the Mathematics International Olympics.

Have you seen it reported anywhere?  Maybe a mention here or there but not really much coverage from the media in PR, United States or Latin America.

Not surprisingly, do you know where it had lots of coverage? You guessed it. South Korea, Singapore, China, Malaysia, Thailand and other Asian countries.

The best team in the Mathematics Olympics was the South Korean team, with six gold medals, China came in second place, the United States third, then Russia, Canada, Thailand and Singapore in that order.

You hear everywhere that Latin America is ready to take off, with Brazil leading the surge. Yet, it was Peru who finished on top of the Latin American countries coming in 16th place. Brazil was 19th, Mexico, 31st, Colombia 46th, Argentina the host country 54th, Chile 59th, Venezuela 91st and Cuba 95th.  There were 100 countries participating and Puerto Rico placed 81th with only one competitor. With the amount of money we spend in education, Puerto Rico should do much better.

Singapore has a seventeen year old, Lim Jack, who won the first place in individual competition with a gold medal and a perfect score. As a team, they didn’t do that well.  They couldn’t find a few Lim Jack’s around.

Canada had a 15 year old math genius who ranked fourth in the world in mathematics winning a gold medal. He was part of a Canadian team of six high school students among 548 students from around the world competing against each other.

Since the competition took place in Argentina, the host country, I would have expected that it would have tremendous coverage. It wasn’t so, most papers only made a brief mention of the event and neither the President of Argentina Cristina Fernandez nor the minister of education, for God’s sake, were present in the inaugural event as reported by Andres Oppenheimer a well- known columnist  who works for The Miami Herald and CNN.

If you take Argentina as an example, and this is true of practically every other country in Latin America, teachers actually make very little money, less than a taxi driver, and a waiter in a restaurant or even a garbage collector.

 If having an educated population ready to tackle the challenges that the modern world is presenting is so important, even critical for the survival of the country, how can teachers be so underpaid?

This is something that has to change. If they want good teachers, they have to raise their salaries so that they can make a decent living, otherwise they will start driving a taxi or becoming plumbers and electricians, not to demean those honorable occupations.

Oppenheimer visited Argentina recently and he found out that truck drivers in Argentina make 2.8 times the minimum salary, garbage collectors 2.6 and teachers only 1.3 times the minimum salary.

A teacher working two shifts, morning and afternoon, makes 2.59 times the minimum salary still less than the truck driver or the garbage collector.

We can reach the conclusion that Argentina, a long time ago among the top 8 countries in the world economically and who had a very solid educational system, is now among the worst in the PISA scores well behind Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and Colombia.

The new elected Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has a big challenge ahead of him in the educational sector. The country was pushing to raise its standards and last month they convened the teachers to a meeting where they would take tests in order to evaluate them. Only 30% showed up! Can you believe this? It is really very sad and gives the country a bad image internationally.

We have to ask ourselves an important question. Is there a relationship between science and mathematics and the progress that countries can achieve?

Let’s look at South Korea, the winner of this year’s competition. As many of you know, my book Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet, which deals with self-discipline, was number one in the best seller list for 62 weeks in a row. It was so successful that a children’s version was written to be distributed among all the young students attending school.  In other words, they felt that those principles should be taught to children, very early in their lives. They take education very seriously.

Fifty years ago, Korea’s earnings per capita was lower than most Latin American countries yet this last year it registered  13,500 international patents in the US versus 500 for all the Latin American countries combined and a per capita of over $30,000 making it one of the ten richest countries in the world.

 I visited Seoul last year to give a few speeches and they told me that their goal for 2050 as a country was to be the number one country in the world. I don’t think they will be able to reach that goal but let me tell you, even if they aren’t able to beat the US, China or Germany, it is a heck of a goal. I won’t be around to see it, unfortunately.

We need to prepare our kids for the mental Olympics with the same interest or even more than we do for the Summer Olympics and we need to pay our teachers more.