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The Values Behind The Numbers

17 Jan 2018

The Values Behind The Numbers
For Tan Choon Shing, every mathematical concept is an opportunity to discuss bigger issues about life and society with his students.

Tan Choon Shing, Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2017 Finalist

Tan Choon Shing does not just teach Maths concepts – he milks them for every learning point he can find.

When teaching the topic of Area and Perimeter to his Primary 3 students, he asks them how they would use their knowledge to set up a school carnival. How would they allocate space in a classroom? How would they find the total area of a particular games stall?

Once they have shown they can apply the concepts, he explains how grown-ups use them.

Housing, for instance, is not only about building more blocks for people to live in. The government also has to cater for space used in transportation, business and recreation, and devise a master plan for the whole country. But it comes down to the same thing: what is a square metre, and how can it be used?

Likewise, after Choon Shing’s Primary 5 students solve a Maths mystery involving a clever burglar, he takes the opportunity to talk to them about how Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. He discusses the rule of law, and the judicial system here.

“This burglar is very talented,” he says to them, returning to the case they cracked. “How are you children going to use your talents? Only for yourself? Or for your family, community, and nation?”

Starting Them Young

It is rather heavy-going stuff for young minds to chew on, but Choon Shing wants to start them off on the right foot.

In fact, he chose to teach in a primary school because he appreciates the opportunity to shape students during their formative years. “Their hearts are still tender. I should strengthen them now, not wait till their teenage years when they may become rebellious,” he says.

One thing he is eager to do is to pre-empt them equating self-worth with academic success, regardless of their ability.

For those in lower progress classes, failing Maths leads to a lack of self-esteem. He tells them: “You have many other talents, so why identify yourself as a failure because you don’t do well in one subject?”

Failure itself need not be a bad thing. A favourite story of Choon Shing’s is how, in the 1992 Olympics, sprinter Derek Redmond tore his hamstring in the 400-metres semi-final but got up and limped to the finish line with his father by his side.

“If he had won the race, he would have been forgotten. Now, his story is retold to inspire people. Which is more beneficial?” he asks his students.

The academically-inclined need some guidance, too, lest they become narrowly focused on getting into a good school, without any sense of duty to society.

“Am I going too deep for the kids?” he asks rhetorically. “Even if I am, I will still do it. I cannot let any batch of students leave me, without pouring into them some of the things I believe in.”

Keeping It Fun

Of course, there are also lighter moments in Choon Shing’s classes. He often spices up his lessons with brain teasers and riddles, bringing much laughter and fun to his lessons.

On being appointed as his school’s Head of Department for Maths in 2015, he initiated Maths Week. He worked with his colleagues to set up an escape room, which proved to be wildly successful. Every day, students thronged the room to try their hand at solving its puzzles using Maths concepts.

The next year, an element of National Education was introduced, when the escape room’s storyline was refined to incorporate the themes of security and terrorism.

Choon Shing looks out for his colleagues, too. Besides mentoring his department’s staff in the teaching of Maths, he also crafted a leadership programme for potential teacher leaders in the school.

The Budding LEaders Apprenticeship Programme – or BLEAP – is a framework to develop organisational awareness and other principles of leadership. The first cohort of promising teachers is still on this two-year journey that began in 2015.

Whether it is his colleagues or his students, Choon Shing tells them, “As long as you want to learn, I will always be there for you.”


“Mr Tan likes to write comments on our papers. He adds in encouraging words. I feel more motivated.” – Huang Yinle, Primary 6