Lessons from Math Olympiads

In a previous post I tried to make the point that math olympiads should not be judged by their relevance to research mathematics. In doing so I failed to actually explain why I think math olympiads are a valuable experience for high schoolers, so I want to make amends here.

1. Summary

In high school I used to think that math contests were primarily meant to encourage contestants to study some math that is (much) more interesting than what’s typically shown in high school. While I still think this is one goal, and maybe it still is the primary goal in some people’s minds, I no longer believe this is the primary benefit.

My current belief is that there are two major benefits from math competitions:

  1. To build a social network for gifted high school students with similar interests.
  2. To provide a challenging experience that lets gifted students grow and develop intellectually.

I should at once disclaim that I do not claim these are the only purpose of mathematical olympiads. Indeed, mathematics is a beautiful subject and introducing competitors to this field of study is of course a great thing (in particular it was life-changing for me). But as I have said before, many alumni of math olympiads do not eventually become mathematicians, and so in my mind I would like to make the case that these alumni have gained a lot from the experience anyways.

2. Social experience

Now that we have email, Facebook, Art of Problem Solving, and whatnot, the math contest community is much larger and stronger than it’s ever been in the past. For the first time, it’s really possible to stay connected with other competitors throughout the entire year, rather than just seeing each other a handful of times during contest season. There’s literally group chats of contestants all over the country where people talk about math problems or the solar eclipse or share funny pictures or inside jokes or everything else. In many ways, being part of the high school math contest community is a lot like having access to the peer group at a top-tier university, except four years earlier.

There’s some concern that a competitive culture is unhealthy for the contestants. I want to make a brief defense here.

I really do think that the contest community is good at being collaborative rather than competitive. You can imagine a world where the competitors think about contests in terms of trying to get a better score than the other person. [1] That would not be a good world. But I think by and large the community is good at thinking about it as just trying to maximize their own score. The score of the person next to you isn’t supposed to matter (and thinking about it doesn’t help, anyways).

Put more bluntly, on contest day, you have one job: get full marks. [2]

Because we have a culture of this shape, we now get a group of talented students all working towards the same thing, rather than against one another. That’s what makes it possible to have a self-supportive community, and what makes it possible for the contestants to really become friends with each other.

I think the strongest contestants don’t even care about the results of contests other than the few really important ones (like USAMO/IMO). It is a long-running joke that the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament is secretly just a MOP reunion, and I personally see to it that this happens every year. [3]

I’ve also heard similar sentiments about ARML:

I enjoy ARML primarily based on the social part of the contest, and many people agree with me; the highlight of ARML for some people is the long bus ride to the contest. Indeed, I think of ARML primarily as a social event, with some mathematics to make it look like the participants are actually doing something important.

(Don’t tell the parents.)

3. Intellectual growth

My view is that if you spend a lot of time thinking or working about anything deep, then you will learn and grow from the experience, almost regardless of what that thing is at an object level. Take chess as an example — even though chess definitely has even fewer “real-life applications” than math, if you take anyone with a 2000+ rating I don’t think many of them would think that the time they invested into the game was wasted. [4]

Olympiad mathematics seems to be no exception to this. In fact the sheer depth and difficulty of the subject probably makes it a particularly good example. [5]

I’m now going to fill this section with a bunch of examples although I don’t claim the list is exhaustive. First, here are the ones that everyone talks about and more or less agrees on:

  • Learning how to think, because, well, that’s how you solve a contest problem.
  • Learning to work hard and not give up, because the contest is difficult and you will not win by accident; you need to actually go through a lot of training.
  • Dual to above, learning to give up on a problem, because sometime the problem really is too hard for you and you won’t solve it even if you spend another ten or twenty or fifty hours, and you have to learn to cut your losses. There is a balancing act here that I think really is best taught by experience, rather than the standard high-school moral cheerleading where you are supposed to “never give up” or something.
  • But also learning to be humble or to ask for help, which is a really hard thing for a lot of young contestants to do.
  • Learning to be patient, not only with solving problems but with the entire journey. You usually do not improve dramatically overnight.

Here are some others I also believe, but don’t hear as often.

  • Learning to be independent, because odds are your high-school math teacher won’t be able to help you with USAMO problems. Training for the highest level of contests is these days almost always done more or less independently. I think having the self-motivation to do the training yourself, as well as the capacity to essentially have to design your own training (making judgments on what to work on, et cetera) is itself a valuable cross-domain skill. (I’m a little sad sometimes that by teaching I deprive my students of the opportunity to practice this. It is a cost.)
  • Being able to work neatly, not because your parents told you to but because if you are sloppy then it will cost you points when you make small (or large) errors on IMO #1. Olympiad problems are difficult enough as is, and you do not want to let them become any harder because of your own sloppiness. (And there are definitely examples of olympiad problems which are impossible to solve if you are not organized.)
  • Being able to organize and write your thoughts well, because some olympiad problems are complex and requires putting together more than one lemma or idea together to solve. For this to work, you need to have the skill of putting together a lot of moving parts into a single coherent argument. Bonus points here if your audience is someone you care about (as opposed to a grader), because then you have to also worry about making the presentation as clean and natural as possible.

    These days, whenever I solve a problem I always take the time to write it up cleanly, because in the process of doing so I nearly always find ways that the solution can be made shorter or more elegant, or at least philosophically more natural. (I also often find my solution is wrong.) So it seems that the write-up process here is not merely about presenting the same math in different ways: the underlying math really does change. [6]

  • Thinking about how to learn. For example, the Art of Problem Solving forums are often filled with questions of the form “what should I do?”. Many older users find these questions obnoxious, but I find them desirable. I think being able to spend time pondering about what makes people improve or learn well is a good trait to develop, rather than mindlessly doing one book after another.

    Of course, many of the questions I referred to are poor, either with no real specific direction: often the questions are essentially “what book should I read?”, or “give me a exhaustive list of everything I should know”. But I think this is inevitable because these are people’s first attempts at understanding contest training. Just like the first difficult math contest you take often goes quite badly, the first time you try to think about learning, you will probably ask questions you will be embarrassed about in five years. My hope is that as these younger users get older and wiser, the questions and thoughts become mature as well. To this end I do not mind seeing people wobble on their first steps.

  • Being honest with your own understanding, particularly of fundamentals. When watching experienced contestants, you often see people solving problems using advanced techniques like Brianchon’s theorem or the n-1 equal value principle or whatever. It’s tempting to think that if you learn the names and statements of all these advanced techniques then you’ll be able to apply them too. But the reality is that these techniques are advanced for a reason: they are hard to use without mastery of fundamentals.

    This is something I definitely struggled with as a contestant: being forced to patiently learn all the fundamentals and not worry about the fancy stuff. To give an example, the 2011 JMO featured an inequality which was routine for experienced or well-trained contestants, but “almost impossible for people who either have not seen inequalities at all or just like to compile famous names in their proofs”. I was in the latter category, and tried to make up a solution using multivariable Jensen, whatever that meant. Only when I was older did I really understand what I was missing.

  • Dual to the above, once you begin to master something completely you start to learn what different depths of understanding feel like, and an appreciation for just how much effort goes into developing a mastery of something.
  • Being able to think about things which are not well-defined. This one often comes as a surprise to people, since math is a field which is known for its precision. But I still maintain that this a skill contests train for.

    A very simple example is a question like, “when should I use the probabilistic method?”. Yes, we know it’s good for existence questions, but can we say anything more about when we expect it to work? Well, one heuristic (not the only one) is “if a monkey could find it” — the idea that a randomly selected object “should” work. But obviously something like this can’t be subject to a (useful) formal definition that works 100% of the time, and there are plenty of contexts in which even informally this heuristic gives the wrong answer. So that’s an example of a vague and nebulous concept that’s nonetheless necessary in order to understanding the probabilistic method well.

    There are much more general examples one can say. What does it mean for a problem to “feel projective”? I can’t tell you a hard set of rules; you’ll have to do a bunch of examples and gain the intuition yourself. Why do I say this problem is “rigid”? Same answer. How do you tell which parts of this problem are natural, and which are artificial? How do you react if you have the feeling the problem gives you nothing to work with? How can you tell if you are making progress on a problem? Trying to figure out partial answers to these questions, even if they can’t be put in words, will go a long way in improving the mythical intuition that everyone knows is so important.

    It might not be unreasonable to say that by this point we are studying philosophy, and that’s exactly what I intend. When I teach now I often make a point of referring to the “morally correct” way of thinking about things, or making a point of explaining why X should be true, rather than just providing a proof. I find this type of philosophy interesting in its own right, but that is not the main reason I incorporate it into my teaching. I teach the philosophy now because it is necessary, because you will solve fewer problems without that understanding.

4. I think if you don’t do well, it’s better to you

But I think the most surprising benefit of math contests is that most participants won’t win. In high school everyone tells you that if you work hard you will succeed. The USAMO is a fantastic counterexample to this. Every year, there are exactly 12 winners on the USAMO. I can promise you there are far more than 12 people who work very hard every year with the hope of doing well on the USAMO. Some people think this is discouraging, but I find it desirable.

Let me tell you a story.

Back in September of 2015, I sneaked in to the parent’s talk at Math Prize for Girls, because Zuming Feng was speaking and I wanted to hear what he had to say. (The whole talk was is available on YouTube now.) The talk had a lot of different parts that I liked, but one of them struck me in particular, when he recounted something he said to one of his top students:

I really want you to work hard, but I really think if you don’t do well, if you fail, it’s better to you.

I had a hard time relating to this when I first heard it, but it makes sense if you think about it. What I’ve tried to argue is that the benefit of math contests is not that the contestant can now solve N problems on USAMO in late April, but what you gain from the entire year of practice. And so if you hold the other 363 days fixed, and then vary only the final outcome of the USAMO, which of success and failure is going to help a contestant develop more as a person?

For that reason I really like to think that the final lesson from high school olympiads is how to appreciate the entire journey, even in spite of the eventual outcome.

Footnotes

  1. I actually think this is one of the good arguments in favor of the new JMO/USAMO system introduced in 2010. Before this, it was not uncommon for participants in 9th and 10th grade to really only aim for solving one or two entry-level USAMO problems to qualify for MOP. To this end I think the mentality of “the cutoff will probably only be X, so give up on solving problem six” is sub-optimal.
  2. That’s a Zuming quote.
  3. Which is why I think the HMIC is actually sort of pointless from a contestant’s perspective, but it’s good logistics training for the tournament directors.
  4. I could be wrong about people thinking chess is a good experience, given that I don’t actually have any serious chess experience beyond knowing how the pieces move. A cursory scan of the Internet suggests otherwise (was surprised to find that Ben Franklin has an opinion on this) but it’s possible there are people who think chess is a waste of time, and are merely not as vocal as the people who think math contests are a waste of time.
  5. Relative to what many high school students work on, not compared to research or something.
  6. Privately, I think that working in math olympiads taught me way more about writing well than English class ever did; English class always felt to me like the skill of trying to sound like I was saying something substantial, even when I wasn’t.

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One thought on “Lessons from Math Olympiads

  1. Adding to all of that, I believe a crucial part simply was fun. I’m sure most engaged “mathletes” enjoy solving math problems and learning more math. I for once gained a hobby that I could do with a pen and some paper – something math olympiads gave me that nobody could ever take. (Granted, my school grades somewhat suffered but it really didn’t matter to me.)

    With these competitions, I first really got interested in math. Before, I didn’t even know what a proof is and would probably not have been as fascinated in math as I am now.

    So indeed, math olympiads really were valuable!

    Liked by 2 people

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