Mariam Salie provides
a personal reflection on her early experiences with mathematics and
collaboration and shares her insight of the value of collaboration.
As a child, I always loved mathematics. My friends thought I was weird, but my teachers loved me and my parents were very proud. But it was the challenge of pushing myself every time I tried to complete a new sum or apply a new formula that got me. It is quite something to beat your own high score! I remember in my very early days at school, I was identified as one of the ‘brighter’ kids and placed in group ‘A’ on the mat. This meant that I got to help the teacher with ensuring that my fellow classmates in the other groups got up to speed. This was my favourite part – being able to explain to others and feel as excited as I did the first time, I got it right, when they finally understood the math problem.
You may think that I probably made it as a math genius, but this is not the case. These are the memories that came up when I thought about the concept of competition versus collaboration. For me, it was never a competition, it was always about collaboration. The only competition was with myself, trying to better my understanding or be able to complete a sum quicker than before. There was a euphoria for me working through a math problem, especially when I got the answer wrong. I was determined to figure out the mistake, simply because I knew there was always a way to get it right. For most people, mistakes are a challenge and simply put, people do not like to make them. I have always thought though that there are lessons in failing. I often think about my attitude when it comes to this and I guess I have my dad to thank. He instilled in me one of many mottos – when in life you lose, do not lose the lesson. This has prompted me time and again to continue even when I want to give up.
Collaboration is an important part of training for the International Mathe- matics Olympiad (IMO). At the IMO students get 4.5 hours to solve three problems. It therefore takes patience, perseverance, sys- tematic prob- lem-solving, a deep knowledge and understanding of various branches of elementary mathematics, and some- times a bit of creativity to solve even one of the three problems. In training, contestants are given previous IMO problems to work on and it some- times takes weeks or even months to come up with the right idea. This can be rather disheart- ening if you are working alone for many months but becomes a valu- able experience if it is interspersed with interactions with others going through the same process.
Department of Psychology,