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Every kid needs a hero

May 03. 2019
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By The Nation

Olympics host Japan has put its athletic champions in a maths textbook, raising the bar on inspirational education

Education authorities in Japan recently introduced a maths textbook for elementary students with a sports theme, a way of honing youth interest in the 2020 Olympics coming to Tokyo – and in maths, too. 

The idea is to get students “interacting” with their country’s athletes and sports organisations so that they enjoy mathematics more. In the month of its release, the textbook landed in the hands of more than 100,000 junior students and, by all accounts, it’s a hit with the kids and a boon to education. Children love heroes and sports. When these two combine, students will naturally pay more attention. 

Japan has really put some thought into this. Olympic gold-medal judoka Kaori Matsumoto and Paralympic swimmer Takuro Yamada, a bronze medallist, helped unveil the book at a selected school in Tokyo on April 17. The event itself was brilliant, as video coverage showed, but the book’s contents are even more so.

Olympians and Paralympians had a direct role in creating the textbook, which pairs its maths problems to the 33 sports to be contested at the Olympics and 22 events from the Paralympics. It’s part of a 2020-based education programme called “Yoi Don!”, meaning “Get Set!” The intent from the start was to make sure this book gets used a lot and isn’t merely accepted with a smile and then set aside as a keepsake.

The whole concept is an admirable innovation in the education of children, the perfect marriage of two prominent goals, and schools everywhere should learn from it. Children often find class time and learning in general to be boring – schools are too formal and lessons far removed from their interests. 

With public enthusiasm over next year’s Olympics steadily building, you can imagine children’s keenness for maths rising when confronting an unusual question like this: “A gymnast’s height is 161cm,” says the text beneath an image of an athlete swinging on a bar. “When he stretches his arms above his head, the distance from his fingertips to his feet is about 2m. Determine the area of the circle.”

One key takeaway for Thai educators is the notion that regular updates to textbooks keep young minds stimulated. The updates should, of course, reflect their age and the shifting sets of interests each generation maintains. Adults are constantly updating their homes and lifestyles, so why are our children using teaching materials that are seldom revised?

Who among our teachers, for example, would think of mixing Tony Stark, the Iron-Man of comic and cinema fame, in with quantum physics? And then, some years down the road when another pop-culture character has eclipsed his fame, who is going to make the switch in the textbook? Making schooling more fun is serious business, requiring responsibility, creativity and consistency from the adults in charge.

To get to that mindset, educators have to think like children, as it were. The fun of attending classes shouldn’t stop at kindergarten or the nursery. Most adults shy away from overly serious formality and we can hardly expect youngsters to learn well in such conditions. They learn better when the learning’s fun. And they have a lot of fun when they get to meet their heroes. Discipline will always be important at school, but when it comes time to hit the books, a little imagination is in order.

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