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WhatisProblemSolving?

byRichardRusczyk
IwasinvitedtotheMathOlympiadSummerProgram(MOP)inthe10thgrade.IwenttoMOPcertainthatImustreallybe
goodatmathInmyfiveweeksatMOP,Iencounteredoversixtyproblemsonvarioustests.Ididn'tsolveasingleone.
That'srightIwas0for60+.IcameawaynolongerconfidentthatIwasgoodatmath.Iassumedthatmostoftheother
kidsdidbetteratMOPbecausetheyknewmoretricksthanIdid.Myformulasheetswereprettythorough,butperhaps
theyweremissingsomething.BytheendofMOP,Ihadlearnedasomewhatunsettlingtruth.Theothersknewfewer
tricksthanIdid,notmore.Theydidn'tevenhaveformulasheets!
Atanothercontestlaterthatsummer,ayoungerstudent,Alex,fromanotherschoolaskedmeformyformulasheets.Inmy
localandstatecircles,students'formulasheetswerethesourceofknowledge,thesourceofpowerthatfueledthetop
studentsandthetopschools.Theywerestudied,memorized,revered.Butmostofall,theywerenotshared.Butwhen
AlexaskedformyformulasheetsIrememberedmyexperienceatMOPandIrealizedthatformulasheetsarenotreally
math.Memorizingformulasisnomoremathematicsthanmemorizingdatesishistoryormemorizingspellingwordsis
literature.Igavehimtheformulasheets.(Alexmustlaterhavelearnedalsothattheformulasheetswerefool'sgoldhe
becameaRhodesscholar.)
ThedifferencebetweenMOPandmanyofthesestateandlocalcontestsIparticipatedinwasthedifferencebetween
problemsolvingandwhatmanypeoplecallmathematics.Forthesepeople,mathisaseriesoftrickstouseonaseriesof
specificproblems.TrickAisforProblemA,TrickBforProblemB,andsoon.Inthisvein,schoolcanbecomearoutineof
'learntricksforaweekusetricksonatestforgetmosttricksquickly.'Thetricksgetforgottenquicklyprimarilybecause
therearesomanyofthem,andalsobecausethestudentsdon'tseehowthese'tricks'arejustextensionsofafewbasic
principles.
IhadpainfullylearnedatMOPthattruemathematicsisnotaprocessofmemorizingformulasandapplyingthemto
problemstailormadeforthoseformulas.Instead,thesuccessfulmathematicianpossessesfewertools,butknowshowto
applythemtoamuchbroaderrangeofproblems.Weusetheterm'problemsolving'todistinguishthisapproachto
mathematicsfromthe'memorizeuseforget'approach.
AfterMOPIrelearnedmaththroughouthighschool.IwasunawarethatIwaslearningmuchmore.WhenIgotto
PrincetonIenrolledinorganicchemistry.Therewereover200studentsinthecourse,andwequicklyseparatedintotwo
groups.Onegroupunderstoodthatallwewouldbetaughtcouldlargelybederivedfromaverysmallnumberofbasic
principles.Welovedtheclassitwasayearlongexplorationofwherethesefundamentalconceptscouldtakeus.The
other,muchlarger,groupsaweachnewdestinationnotastheresultofapathfromthebuildingblocks,butasyet
anotherplacewhosecoordinateshadtobememorizedifevertheyweretovisitagain.Almosttoastudent,thedifference
betweenthoseinthehappygroupandthoseinthestrugglinggroupwashowtheylearnedmathematics.Theclass
seeminglyinvolvednomathatall,butthosewhotookamemorizationapproachtomathweredoomedtodoitagainin
chemistry.Theskillstheproblemsolversdevelopedinmathtransferred,andthesestudentsflourished.
Weusemathtoteachproblemsolvingbecauseitisthemostfundamentallogicaldiscipline.Notonlyisitthefoundation
uponwhichsciencesarebuilt,itistheclearestwaytolearnandunderstandhowtodeveloparigorouslogicalargument.
Therearenoloopholes,therearenohalftruths.Thelanguageofmathematicsisprecise,asis'right'and'wrong'(or
'proven'and'unproven').Successandfailureareimmediateandindisputablethereisn'troomforsubjectivity.Thisisnot
tosaythatthosewhocannotdomathcannotsolveproblems.Therearemanypathstostrongproblemsolvingskills.
Mathematicsistheshortest.
Problemsolvingiscrucialinmathematicseducationbecauseittranscendsmathematics.Bydevelopingproblemsolving
skills,welearnnotonlyhowtotacklemathproblems,butalsohowtologicallyworkourwaythroughanyproblemswe
mayface.Thememorizercanonlysolveproblemshehasencounteredalready,buttheproblemsolvercansolve
problemsshe'sneverseenbefore.Theproblemsolverisflexibleshecandiversify.Aboveall,shecancreate.

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