It All Adds Up To Life
Mathematics is considered by many students as one of the most dreaded subjects in school, but with a teacher like Yang Zhaohui it is not just Math; it is not just a subject offered in school. Math is an “interpretation of life…” as Mr. Yang describes it. This soulful link between an exact science to the many uncertain intricacies of life is all the introduction you need to Keystone’s middle school Math teacher par excellence. But there is so much more to this beautiful mind. Accomplished, experienced yet simple and humble with a bright-eyed smile to match, meet Mr. Yang, a math teacher with a formula for life.
“…the students in the my school back then would intentionally avoid me.” This is a recollection from Yang Zhaohui’s very first year of teaching Math in Beijing’s No.22 Middle School; this was soon after his graduation from Beijing Normal University in 1994 with a degree in Mathematics. Mr. Yang remembers how miserable students learning Math through conventional methods can be. At about the same time he remembers receiving a grade 8 Math textbook from Australia. This textbook, which was as thick as six Chinese Math textbooks made him feel “like it was holding arms wide open, inviting me to the wonderful world of Math,” said Mr. Yang, quickly adding, “For instance, one Math problem in the book explained the kinds of nutrients in food and their relative ratios. From a mathematical standpoint, ratios such as these can be presented using a simple equation with seemingly no relevance to the real world. But the book adopted a highly practical approach, so the students would not only study math, but also nutritional information. I could easily visualize how happy students would be sitting in classrooms with this textbook.” This and similar other instances were what prompted him to steer his teaching career onto the road of international education.
Then starting at Beijing’s Pakistan Embassy College, he continued teaching in international schools in Fiji, India, Dubai and Hong Kong. Through the years he has also become deeply involved with the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum through planning and designing an MYP Math textbook in 2005 that became quite popular among schools, and also as an IB Diploma Programme (DP) examiner. “I am responsible for spot checking grading systems used by international schools around the world to assess their rigor and compliance with IB standards. Examiners are already experienced DP teachers themselves, but this position allows examiners to gain further insight into the strengths and weaknesses of students from other schools, and apply such insights to their teaching.” Everything Mr. Yang does or is involved in is an addition to his skills, self-improvement and dedication to continue to be an even better Math teacher, but without losing the fun and joy of learning and teaching Math.
One + One = Fun
Doing an exhaustive list of Math exercises for practice is no fun. This test-oriented approach, used by many Chinese public schools, may help some students achieve high score in some tests, such as the SAT, but it not the best way to cultivate skills. Yang Zhaohui believes that the inquiry-based and deductive reasoning approach used in international schools and curriculums is better in the long term, especially in high school, because learning lies in the thinking process that accelerates learning and makes students better learners. So there is no fun if the teacher tells you that 2+1=3 and that this also means that 3-2=1 and3-1=2. It is more fun if students can deduce 3-2=1 and 3-1=2 on their own with guidance from teachers. These are lessons and skills that will remain with students beyond the classroom. For instance, oral arithmetic increases one’s intuition for numbers or complex numerical calculations that involve multiple steps improve logical thinking skills. And Mr. Yang brings this fun of cultivating math and life skills through a top-down planning approach to Keystone. He says, “Our middle school has four grades (grades 6-9), and we use a top-down approach to designing our classes. We start from high school and consider what kinds of knowledge students at that level should possess, then backtrack and work out what students at the lower level should know and study. My years of experience have provided me with a crystal clear picture of the level of knowledge and the profile of the knowledge structure required for each grade, which I can turn into detailed plans for each of the two semesters. However, these are not benchmarks for a student’s aptitude levels for each grade based on one or two test results. Assessing a student takes time – just like a doctor who needs more careful examinations than simply looking at the patient’s tongue when making a diagnosis.” Mr. Yang is also not discerning as he explains the levels of Math classes at Keystone. The standard and advanced Math classes are only names for Mr. Yang, “Both require the same level of rigorousness…the only difference is that the latter has more complex problems.”
In his careful and caring manner, Mr. Yang goes the extra mile not only by planning the curriculum for each grade, but by also planning his every lesson. He says that though the lessons may be the same each year, his students are not: “Ninth grade students in international schools are expected to know the relationship between the discriminant and graph for a (single variable) quadratic equation. But different students understand different concepts differently. To ensure students’ future learning progress, I have to quickly develop a jigsaw puzzle to explain all the key points, and help students understand and digest this relationship.” It is not just quadratic equations that Mr. Yang makes fun and digestable with puzzles, he has one for most Math concepts. One grade 8 project while learning statistics involved conducting a comparative study of the students height and weight and their ability to sprint for 50 meters. Another project from his time in Dubai involved creating mathematical models to recreate the world-renowned subway station in Dubai. Not only did students enjoy the project, but they also scored high marks, and passed the IB review. Keystone students have also got a taste of the Yang-style of teaching. In a recent assignment, Mr. Yang asked his grade 7 students to calculate the area of the oval dome on the ceiling of the Keystone dance studio. The students came up with four different methods and produced very close results. It was a process in which they experienced setbacks, gained new knowledge, and earned valuable teamwork experience. These are all essential to any learning process as Albert Einstein once said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”
Calculating at Every Intersection of Life
Mr. Yang enjoys creating interesting new real-life Math problems so much that he once went to Nepal and lived in a house on a mountain for three days to come up with exciting questions for his students in Dubai. But he is also someone who understands that Math is not for everyone, and that not everyone enjoys the quest for answers to his exciting Math puzzles. “We all have our distinctive talents. For instance, I cannot learn to swim even with the best of instructors. So Math does not have to be a student’s whole life. All they have to do is be positive and enjoy the fun part of learning… For me, I have loved this subject from primary school and have known that I would be a Math teacher. As a young boy, I used to wait for a monthly magazine that had a Math puzzle and was so happy to solve it.” But he also always feels happy when parents tell him about their children’s growing love or reducing aversion for his subject. Recently, a parent of a grade 7 student told Mr. Yang that before her child came to Keystone, she disliked Math, but now she is happy to tell her parents that she must complete her Math assignments.
Mr. Yang brings his passion for Math and the joy of learning it to his students. But, he believes, the utility of any subject is up to every student – they must figure out what each subject is useful for, and how they want to use that knowledge. This approach to Math is also Mr. Yang’s approach to life and learning in life. Math and life are connected in many ways for him. He remembers, “While we were in Tibet to raise funds for school dormitories, I felt I touched upon a dimension of Math. Through interactions with the local community, our lives had intersected, and ‘intersection’ is actually a mathematical concept. Or take the concept of gains and losses or balance. I was led to reflect on these when I realized that the local community, despite their struggles with poverty, possessed a thirst for knowledge and optimism for life that we could only aspire to. To me it was inspiring to see how happy they were despite their poverty. On the contrary we accumulate things big and small, necessities and luxuries, but are we happy? There is no perfect solution or balance in life just like in solving a math problem. Any given Math problem can be solved in different ways. Method A might be simple in its steps but hard to come up with; while method B may be more conventional, but requires more steps. Both methods have their pros and cons, just like every situation in life.” Students may or may not have a passion for Math, but with a teacher like Yang Zhaohui, they will definitely have a passion for life.