Finding x: A Look into the World of Competitive Mathematics
by Nicole Allison Kua Sy
SA21 Section P
Cheering crowds, hyped up athletes, drums lining the bleachers, opposing players sitting with their own teams and going through various plays and strategies. As a former high school basketball player, this is the scene I am quite used to, if not fully comfortable in, when I enter a gym on game day. Tensions are quite high, especially with rival teams about to take the court, not only between the two opposing teams but amongst the audience as well. Lines are clearly drawn and loyalties clearly defined with shirt color, pompoms, and other school-supporting paraphernalia. The seats in these kinds of events are occupied by students from the respective schools, and most of them are personally acquainted with one or more of the players, coming to the games as a sign of support to their friends. There is a sense of intimacy and fierce loyalty to the teams underlying the audience’s cheers and jeers, giving them more of a stake in the outcome of the game than one might initially perceive.
For this assignment I decided to deviate from the hyper-active sports world I am so acquainted with to delve deeper into the more academic world that my brother belongs to, and so I decided to be the ever-supportive sister and attend one of his math contests. The Metrobank MTAP Dep-Ed Math Challenge, one of the more recognized elementary and high school mathematics competitions in the country, is comprised of a series of contests, both individual and team-based, amongst many of the public and private schools nationwide. It’s a small sample of the mathematically-inclined, a peek into the world of competitive mathematics.
The scene that welcomed me as I got out of the car the morning of the sectoral round of the competition was a pretty chaotic one, with throngs of students, parents, and some teachers from the different private schools all crowded in the entrance hall of Philippine Science High School. The entrance hall was packed and abuzz with students trying to find their teammates and coaches trying to gather their teams around and not lose them in the writhing mass of moving bodies.
Although I was unnerved by the disorganization of everything, all around me were students who seemed not to be bothered at all. Even as the horde of people piled into the tiny auditorium, there was constant chatter and laughter. Most students and even parents seem to know each other, weaving in and out of their respective groups to greet other friends. All of it brings about a sense of community and friendliness, despite the competition.
The event, as mentioned, was quite disorganized. The auditorium could only accommodate one year level at a time, and meanwhile most of the other participants, their parents, and their coaches were forced to sit outside the auditorium on the floor for lack of anywhere else to go. Some of the more seasoned participants with their parents would leave first while it was not yet their turn and come back after having a bite to eat. Some of the waiting participants were, as one would expect, avidly training with practice problems, while others were simply chatting away with their friends or playing on their various gadgets and playing cards.
During the contest proper, I took the part of supportive sister in the audience, which was not quite what I expected. Instead of cheering and clapping, the audience consisted of parents and teachers taking note of the various questions- their means ranging from the more traditional pen and paper to the more sophisticated voice recorder. Not only that, parents also had their own spread sheets where they would track down the points for each team.
The teams were seated in front, and one can quickly distinguish the math jocks from the rest. They would be quite calmly reposed in their seats, while the rest were tenser. My brother Andrew actually pointed out this disparity in composure and activity across the different cliques.
The contest is comprised of three rounds: easy (to be solved mentally), average, and difficult. At the signal of the quiz master, teams are to start solving and write their answers on slips of paper within the given time limit. The proctors then collect them and submit the answer sheets to the panel. The judges would then raise a board with the answer for only the participants to see, and then dictate the teams that got it right for the scorer to record. At these times the atmosphere would become quite tense, the audience quieting down to listen. At the mention of the team’s number, concerned parties in the audience will let out sighs of relief, but there is hardly any applause in the duration of the contest. There is only applause when only a few teams are able to correctly answer a problem. A single question could be the difference between winning and losing, and a team that is leading can quite quickly fall through the ranks. It’s an altogether different kind of excitement as compared to the sporting competitions most of us are more used to.
The more nail-biting portion of the contest is one that is not always present: the do-or-die portion. This only occurs when two or more teams tied in points have exhausted all the tiebreaker questions. It is an amazing exhibition of mathematical skill and speed, with teams racing to raise their correct answer first. It is quick, silent, and decisive.
After the contest, the top three teams were awarded, which was a flurry of proud parents standing to take pictures of their children with their coaches. The participants themselves, presumably already used to these events, would casually chat with their friends.
All throughout the competition one can see the infinitely greater role of the audience than one would initially imagine. Much like sporting events, the audience feels that they have a great stake in the outcome of the competition, but in this case the stake is real. These parents serve as their children’s primary trainers, transcribing contest questions for training, looking up material online, some even reading up on the material themselves. I have seen my own parents do the same at home- spending several hours helping my brother train for his many contests. They have been to all of his international competitions, and after Andrew transferred to a school less supportive of his academic pursuits, my dad has taken greater responsibility over his training.
None of the participants in that auditorium could possibly look out into the audience, see their ever-supportive parents studiously taking notes and waiting for nearly a whole day, and honestly say that they are not loved. Such is a math kid parent’s love.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Undoubtedly, participation gleans a whole lot more insight than mere observation, as it includes the unmatchable factor of feeling. Being part of an activity challenges us to adapt to the circumstances, and through these instinctive nuances in our own behavior we are better able to perceive the effect the activity has on the regular participants. It gives us an invaluable piece of the puzzle that we would not have understood without actual participation. In my case, I would not have been able to understand the great support system the audience provides had I not been part of said audience, hastily scribbling down the questions and keeping track of the scores. Every stroke I marked on that blank spreadsheet represented the standing of each team, and having to skip my brother’s team or that of my alma mater was heartbreaking. In the end, it was also very rewarding to be part of the group of parents taking pictures of their children, and it made me feel very proud of my brother (their team had not placed but he was awarded for placing fourth overall in the individual sectoral round).
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Key informants, in this case my dad and my brother, play a vital role in the understanding of any culture. Even though participation in the activity greatly increased my knowledge about the said event, there were still some portions I could not have understood without the aid of a person much more acquainted with the event. For example, I asked my dad why the judges only showed the correct answer to the participants and not the audience. To this he replied that over the years there have been incidents wherein public schools have been accused of getting leakage. As this was the private sector branch of the sectoral round, the organizers had to strictly guard the integrity of the contest. To this answer I posed another question of why the public school teachers would cheat, and got the unsavory back story of these public school staff and even their superintendents getting bonuses as incentives for their students to win. Clearly I could not have gleaned this information by myself, and the help of my key informants was very much welcome.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Questionnaires and interviews, albeit having their own strengths, would not have sufficed in giving me the feeling of actually being a part of the activity. I would not have been able to understand the audience’s unwavering support of their teams, nor the intense concentration of the participants during the contest proper as opposed to their more relaxed state right before or right after the contest proper. I would not have been able to see the friendships and feel the sense of community, something of quite note given that the stakes are quite high for this competition.
The abovementioned data-gathering practices of questionnaires and interviews are often lacking in that the answers to these can quite easily be misinterpreted or taken out of context, something that participant observation can acknowledge. After all, one cannot take something out of context while being in the context himself/herself. It is also much easier to conduct follow-up questions to different unprecedented situations that may arise.
There is also the advantage of a more truthful and accurate representation of events. We humans are naturally inclined to make ourselves look better, or to attempt to maintain consistency with the values which we pride ourselves upon. A respondent is subject to these biases and as a result might give inaccurate answers to the questions posed to them. Participant observation decreases the risk of such inaccuracies by having oneself in the actual situation and receiving information firsthand.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
Although participant observation clearly has its merits, it will often lack in more quantitative date-gathering. More objective and narrowed-down objectives to a certain study will gain more progress from questionnaires or interviews, as these will be developed to target certain things and will get more concrete answers faster. The data that is collected from these types of data-gathering practices are usually more easily correlated.
There are also instances wherein one does not have access to actually participate in the event, and at these moments one needs to make use of the knowledge of the people actually involved in the activity.