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Maths Olympiad – it’s How you think, not What you do


In this Tutor Spotlight series, we feature private tutors with years of tutoring experience in areas where we often see many questions and misconceptions in. See the other interviews here.

How do you teach the skills needs for students to excel in Maths Olympiad competitions? Mr Timothy has been training such students in their problem-solving skills for over a year now. He draws from his own experience of his Maths Olympiad days back in school, as well as, his observations and techniques honed from over 8 years of tutoring experience in Maths.

During class, he provides extra material to deepen students’ understanding and link concepts together. Find out more about Mr Timothy, as he shares his approach in honing students’ critical thinking skills here!

How many years have you been training students for Maths Olympiad competitions?

Mr Timothy: I have been training Maths Olympiad students for over a year now, ever since I became a full-time tutor! I got nostalgic and wanted to reminisce about my own Maths Olympiad days, and after taking on my first Maths Olympiad student, I haven't looked back since. Now, I'm proud to include Maths Olympiad training in my teaching repertoire.

Which Maths Olympiad syllabus are you familiar with?

Mr Timothy: I'm most familiar with RIPMWC, APMOPS, and NMOS since those are the competitions I've been training my students for. Of course, I'm familiar with the other syllabi as well, but above all, Maths Olympiad is a way of thinking, not a syllabus!

What are some of the main differences in Maths Olympiad vs MOE school curriculum?

Mr Timothy: I'd say they require different ways of thinking about problems, and different approaches to problem-solving. Maths Olympiad always requires students to break questions down one level lower than usual MOE curriculum questions. Sometimes, key information to solve questions is well-hidden, so it isn't obvious what the “first step” should be. 

What is your usual approach in helping/guiding students to solve Maths Olympiad questions?

Mr Timothy: I usually start by drawing links to what they learn in school. That helps give them a sense of familiarity with the questions they come across, and build their confidence in tackling unfamiliar problems.

Then, I expose them to harder questions. That gets them to think critically- what assumptions are we making in this problem? What are our possible approaches? What concepts can we use in each approach? These are common questions, actually, when you think about it –  we ask these all the time when faced with unfamiliarity, and I guide my students through the process of consciously, routinely engaging with these questions; bolstering their thinking and training them to become robust thinkers and resilient problem-solvers.

Lastly, I teach them heuristics as necessary techniques to add to their problem-solving toolbox. The Method of Extreme Cases, the Over-Counting Principle… Most of these I've developed on my own, designed to be easily applied across a large range of problems; but of course nothing beats going back to step one- asking critical questions.

If the student cannot understand the question, how do you usually help them?

Mr Timothy: Prod them along the critical thinking process! Ask them to try out one approach- if it doesn't work, ask if there's anything we've missed out, contradicted or over-assumed. With that knowledge, we can come back and try a better approach. You'll know when you get the right one!

Do you think Maths Olympiad should be extended to more students?

Mr Timothy: Absolutely! Back then, Maths Olympiad training was available to only the top scorers in Maths exams in GEP classes, so few of us had the privilege of Maths Olympiad training (tuition was practically unheard of.) It's good that there are more competitions available and MOE has made the move to open this opportunity up to more students nowadays. Although not everyone may participate in a competition, I believe that Maths Olympiad training should be accessible to everyone. Again, Maths Olympiad is a way of thinking, and these critical thinking skills will prove to be useful, even in the regular curriculum (you'll be able to solve all the tricky PSLE questions, no sweat.)

Personally, have you participated in any Maths Olympiad competition? If have, when was that and how was your experience back then?

Mr Timothy: Yes! I participated in SMOPS and APMOPS in primary school, 16 years ago! I still remember the training sessions held once a week after Higher Chinese classes. My teacher's name was Mr. Mahmoud Shah – he was inspiring and funny, and his lessons were always the highlight of my week. Eventually, I won a platinum award! I would say I owe my passion for teaching and inspiring my students in no small capacity to him – so Mr. Mahmoud Shah, if you're out there, this one's for you.

* Interview edited for brevity and clarity



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