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Good Schools Guide

Maths whiz Garris is ‘Top in the World’

West Island School pupil aces a subject he once found problematic to score a perfect 100 per cent and win international award

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 4:59pm

If Garris Choi was nervous awaiting the results of his IGCSE exams this summer, he had no reason to be. The 16-year-old West Island School pupil passed all 11 of his subjects – plus one AS level – with flying colours, but didn’t stop there. He crowned his achievements by also winning the Top in the World award for international mathematics and is now looking forward to attending a special presentation ceremony to celebrate that success.

“Maths hasn’t always been easy for me,” says Choi, who also came top in Hong Kong in computer studies. “I think part of the reason I did well in this exam was a lot of practice, working through past papers and sticking to a well-planned revision timetable.”

With due modesty, though, he is also wiling to concede that to score 100 per cent, not dropping a single mark over three papers which include algebra, trigonometry, sequences, quadratic equations, calculus and statistics, requires something out of the ordinary.

In particular, since mathematicians can follow different processes, anyone winning the highest distinction has to show their thinking and methods and, if possible, what they considered but chose not to do.

“If it’s a ‘proving something’ question, there might be a best way or a most elegant way to arrive at the solution,” Choi says. “In other cases, with enough practice, you can easily identify what kind of problem it is and recall which formulas to use and which steps to follow to get to the answer.

“There is usually one bit of information to look for, which can then unlock the rest of the problem,” he says.

Choi says he was never one of the best at maths in primary school. But that changed after moving to West Island in Year 7: “We did a lot more investigation tasks as opposed to mental arithmetic and pure calculation. I was much more interested in that way of doing things.”

Maths teacher Andrew Cockayne says that this approach is all part of the school’s inquiry-based curriculum and method of learning. He points out that achieving top results in a stringent exam is also a matter of individual character and application.

“Garris is one of those lucky people who instinctively understand how maths fits together and can see links,” Cockayne says. “He shows great attention to detail, has a really rigorous approach, is very precise and doesn’t leave room for ambiguity. He also makes notes of routes that are not possible, and that’s a real strength.”

When teaching such students, Cockayne says it is important to make sure they are pushed by demanding rigour and by putting things in front of them that are not necessarily on the syllabus.

“It’s about keeping them interested. So instead of just trying to accelerate [through the course material], we show them the breadth of the subject and links to other areas of maths,” Cockayne says.

Choi has now moved up to Year 12, and started the IB (International Baccalaureate) diploma programme. He is taking chemistry, biology and mathematics as higher-level subjects, plus English literature, French and philosophy at standard level.

At first, he found IB maths “quite hard,” as it is a clear step up from the previous year’s curriculum. “It is more complicated, not straightforward,” he says. “You have to think outside the box more.” But Choi soon hit his stride.

Outside the classroom, he plays badminton, is learning the violin, and is involved in a school initiative to collect items for charity and provide food for those in need in the local community.

“By doing that, I have learned a lot about leadership and organising events,” he says.

This is the second consecutive year that a West Island pupil has won the Top in the World award for maths, and school principal Chris Sammons attributes the success to a relatively simple formula.

“It is a result of having passionate teachers who know their subject really well,” he says. “They present the material in an interesting way. They don’t just ask students to resolve problems, they get them to see how maths can be applied to the real world.

“They challenge themselves and spark off each other. They also do a lot of competitions, including one for the whole school in the sports hall, which creates enthusiasm, excitement, and a culture where students learn to think mathematically,” Sammons says.

Choi is weighing up the possibilities of studying medicine, dentistry or biochemistry at university, with medicine being his preferred option. “Being a doctor is one of the best and most direct ways to make a positive change in people’s lives,” he says. “And, of course, it’s related to different sciences as well.”

Sammons fully supports such ambitions. “We are really proud of what Choi has achieved. He works hard, is conscientious, and makes his own luck,” Sammons says.