Learning math in Cambodia
Imagine starting school a few years late with much younger classmates. Imagine never having held a pencil, piece of chalk, or other writing utensil until the age of 8. And, on top of that, imagine being an orphan living with illiterate grandparents. This is Nop Pich’s life. Nop lives in rural Takeo, Cambodia, and started school for the first time in October 2012 when he was 8 years old. I met Nop in his grade 1 classroom in his primary school in Takeo last month. Nop was sitting at the back of the classroom with his head on his desk. I asked the teacher what was wrong with Nop, and she replied, “He doesn’t come prepared for school.”
Nop, wearing a disheveled uniform, didn’t have any school materials with him. I encouraged the teacher to move Nop to the front of the class, and to lend him some chalk and small chalkboard to work on so that he could do the math exercise written on the board—writing numbers 1 to 20. But, Nop just stared at the chalk piece and board. I, again, asked what was wrong. Nop had never held a writing utensil before and therefore did not know how to write numbers. For the rest of the class, my translator and I sat next to Nop, teaching him the motor skills to hold a piece of chalk and write the numbers on his board. My translator would write the number on Nop’s board using dashes, and Nop would work on tracing the numbers. Before I left the class, I discussed with Nop’s teacher to make sure that Nop practices writing every day. It was a sobering experience and I sure hope that Nop catches up with his classmates.
Unfortunately, Nop’s story is not unique. Teachers are often overwhelmed by large class sizes and not trained to deal with children lagging behind. But is it important to ensure that no child is left behind. Children who do not have a solid education in the first years of school do not master the fundamentals needed to progress in the curriculum. This is the case in many other low-income countries. In India, for example, around 70% of grade 3 rural children cannot recognize numbers past 9. There is an urgency to help students like Nop so they do not fall behind in class and drop out of school. Basic numerical and mathematical skills are crucial for countries to develop the human capital needed for making advancements in science and technology, which are in turn important factors for economic development. And recent research has shown that a child’s performance on early mathematics tasks is a valid predictor of a child’s later achievement in school – even more reason to invest in early grade mathematics. I look forward to visiting Nop in his classroom the next time I come to Cambodia. I look forward to Nop comfortably holding a writing utensil, and able to write numbers on his own. And, I look forward to seeing Nop go to 2nd grade.