By the Blouin News World staff

What viral head-scratcher says about Asian STEM

by in Asia-Pacific.

Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam (R) shakes hands with Professor Pericles Lewis (C), president of Yale-NUS college after officiating the inauguration ceremony to mark the start of the Yale-NUS College while other officials look on in SIngapore on August 27, 2013.

An inauguration ceremony to mark the start of the Yale-NUS College while other officials look on in SIngapore on August 27, 2013.

This week, the internet’s mind was blown by a tricky math problem from a Singapore Olympiad. It inspired a hashtag, contentious reddit threads, and on-air squabbling among commentators around the world. The conundrum initially went viral after it was featured by a flummoxed newscaster in Singapore, who quipped that he and his wife are unable to do children’s homework. Here’s the problem:

Albert and Bernard just became friends with Cheryl, and they want to know when her birthday is. Cheryl marks ten possible dates: May 15, May 16, May 19, June 17, June 18, July 14, July 16, August 14, August 15, or August 17.

Then Cheryl tells Albert the month of her birthday, but not the day. She tells Bernard the day of her birthday, but not the month. Then she asked if they can figure it out.

Albert: I don’t know when Cheryl’s birthday is, but I know Bernard doesn’t know either.

Bernard: At first I didn’t know when Cheryl’s birthday is, but now I know.

Albert: If you know, then I know too!

When is Cheryl’s birthday?

We’ll let you drive yourself nuts over it instead of forking over the answer. But this sophisticated analytical reasoning problem has international observers doing more than just drawing diagrams on scratch paper — the viral test item has sparked a discussion about the ins and outs of the Singapore education system, considered to be among the best in the world. The tiny island city-state has earned especial accolades in math achievement.

Singapore’s focus on education is a political choice as well as an economic one. In a video produced by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, Singapore’s Director-General of Education Ho Peng explained the impetus for this: “We are a small country with no natural resources,” she said. “So, since independence, education has always been a means by which you could forge a national identity.” By building a strong educational infrastructure, ambitious Singapore hoped to generate the skills that would make the country prestigious and competitive in the global sphere.

As the birthday problem shows, Singapore tends to emphasize logic rather than arithmetic in its math curriculum. In other words, understanding why an answer is correct is privileged over merely understanding what the answer is. Plenty of American states and towns have attempted to adapt aspects of the Singapore system — including textbooks, which are in English — into school districts, with generally good results. But the abstraction-skewed logic puzzles ubiquitous in Singapore curricula are not universally embraced in the U.S. — the hyper-controversial “common core” adapts tenets of the Singapore system, and has been met with disdain by those who think it overcomplicates things.

Singapore’s educational system has also attracted international attention for its impressive teachers. The profession is comparatively more prestigious in Singapore than it is in the United States. Teachers in the former country are rigorously vetted, and carefully selected from the top third of their graduating classes. They’re also highly incentivized, earning more than high-paying American fields like engineering and law. Throughout their careers, teachers also participate in ongoing development and mentorship programs, which have been studied and replicated by educators elsewhere.

Singapore’s educational successes also fits into the larger discussion of STEM education in Asia, where students routinely top the charts in science and math, ahead of their lagging Western counterparts. Conventional wisdom about the STEM achievements of East Asia has had considerable influence on U.S. discourse and public policy. To ensure that American students remain competitive and relevant in the global economy, there has been an unprecedented push toward these fields in recent years.

Still, as impressive as STEM instruction is in Singapore and other East Asian powerhouses, the intent Western focus on it sometimes feels more reflective of geopolitical anxieties than pragmatic economic concerns. The 21st century rise of China has roughly coincided with America’s growing obsession with STEM, which is especially telling given that China has also emerged as a top performer on international tests. The pro-STEM sentiment in the U.S. has also given way to insults hurled at the liberal arts, with American lawmakers publicly questioning the wisdom of churning out more English lit or anthropology grads into the modern global marketplace.

But this approach fails to account for the advantages of the liberal arts. While American kids fall short of their Asian counterparts in math and science, they outperform other students in fields like creative and critical thinking — earning the U.S. a reputation for innovation. Because of this, STEM stars in Asia have looked to the West to help their students as well: “Chinese teachers and principals are now apt to adopt elements of Western education to better protect children’s spirits, so they can grow up in a happier and freer study environment,” Chinese education specialist Lao Kaisheng told The Globe and Mail.

Ultimately, in a globalized world, it seems sensible to incorporate elements from a variety of national systems into an effective education program. Until then, Cheryl might get more birthday wishes from her friends in East Asia than in the U.S.