Another dot in the blogosphere?

Cheryl’s sequel is not your fault

Posted on: May 16, 2017

In 2015, we had Cheryl’s birthday to contend with. This year we have a different math question to contend with. I call it Cheryl 2: The Sequel.

There were many types of reactions from layfolk.

The mathematically-inclined came up with different solutions. Adults wondered if life was getting that much more difficult for kids. Parents pondered getting even more tuition for their children. Enrichment centres have probably added the puzzle to their brochures.

I wager that one of the most common types of reaction looks something like the one below.

Such exasperation seems reasonable given how perplexing the problem is. However, all these responses are unwarranted.

We need not worry that we seem to have forgotten how to do math. Why? We were not taught that way, so you have nothing to forget.

Being older, and by implication, more knowledgeable and wiser, does not mean you should be able to solve the math problem.

Instead consider the silo that the math problem was designed in. According to this blog entry, the problem is called a Petite Circle-Sum Walkthrough. You can solve the problem if you follow the rules of the solution.

Solution source

Now ask yourself what application this has beyond that context. How does this actually contribute to thinking and applying in a broader sense? How does a child in Primary 1 use it now and later? How do you as an adult use it now or later?

What are you worried about?

If it is about your inability to solve the problem, then worry not because this solution was a Google search away. Your ability to find a feasible solution is more important than solving the problem because information fluency and critical thinking are more useful in the short and long term.

If you are worried about the type of math being taught, you should be more worried if their teachers do not know why the question was set.

  • If the teachers say that the question was a “bonus” one that did not mark students down, why include it in an examination? Such a challenging question could have been done in class as a form of differentiated instruction.
  • If the strategy was not taught beforehand, how assessment literate are the teachers? One generally does not test what was not previously taught and learnt.
  • If the goal was to identify students with Math Olympiad potential, could there be some other strategy for doing this? Alternatives include, but are not limited to, talent-spotting, student volunteering, and special group testing.

I critique this sequel to Cheryl not to say that mathematics is unimportant. Math is critical as a universal language and it is the foundation of our sciences.

I mean to point out that the WHY and SO WHAT of math often gets lost in the WHAT and HOW. People here seem to focus on how to solve it and what the right answer is as if setting such a question is acceptable practice. Instead we should be asking why such a practice even exists. We should be wondering “so what” if students can or cannot answer this question.


Do not blame yourself if you do not “get” this Cheryl sequel. Think of Cheryl 1 and Cheryl 2 as bad movies, like Sharknado and its sequels. Those B-grade movies were fuelled by fantasy, preyed on ignorance, and fed movie studio greed.

Those in schools and enrichment centres that perpetuate content and thinking that has no contextual meaning or relevance elsewhere are doing the same. They operate in their own silos, take advantage of information you do not (and need not) understand, and feed inertia.

Cheryl 2: The Sequel is not your fault if you do not understand it. It is your fault if you fuel the hysteria and let Cheryl 3: It Returns happen.

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