Monday, November 26, 2007

What's So Great About Singapore Math?

Recently, on this blog, we discussed the performance of US 8th graders on the NAEP, and how that compared with exams taken by students in various countries. As usual, Singapore came out right at the top. The vast majority of Singaporean students were deemed proficient; a far lower percentage of American students were.

Of course, the US has a long tradition of incorporating what works in other countries here. So it comes as no surprise that a number of districts have adopted "Singapore Math" curricula. Some have achieved test gains after doing so, though educational studies are almost impossible to control (i.e., are the gains from the curriculum, or the fact that the teachers went through additional training, and were excited about it? Etc.) You can read a handful of articles about the roll-outs here.

I don't have any personal experience with Singapore math. I haven't observed a class learning it. But reading over these articles, I have to say that the curriculum seems to be doing a number of things right.

First, kids learn fewer topics each year, but learn them more in depth. American kids might see 30 math concepts a year, and then re-cover 25 of them the next year. Singapore math does not repeat concepts. You learn a concept, then move on or build on it.

There are pros and cons to this. One of the reasons American schools review so many concepts is that kids move around, and there is no national curriculum (or even state curriculum sometimes). Singapore kids might move from school to school, but they'll be covering the same stuff even if they do. Kids who move into Singapore math districts in the US wind up with some big gaps.

But on the other hand, covering and then recovering concepts leads to burn-out and shallow knowledge. American students have covered various basic arithmetic concepts many times by the time they officially get to algebra. But they may not actually understand what's going on. I had a conversation with a grade school child recently in which he asked how old my baby was. Six months, I told him. So how long until he's a year old? the child asked. I turned it around and asked the kid how many months were in a year. Once we established that there were twelve, I repeated the original question. The child was somewhat confused. I have no doubt that if I'd given him a worksheet saying "12-6 = ?" he would know what to do. But a multi-step word problem requires deeper understanding of what subtraction is and why you use it. American schools tend to skimp on these.

Singapore math also encourages students to do problems in their heads, to talk them out, and to draw visual representations of the problem (as an intermediate step to doing that visual work in your head). There is some stress on speed in order to keep kids interested. I developed all kinds of short cuts and visual ways of figuring out problems when I did math contests in school, and those skills certainly helped me master various concepts. Singapore math seems to incorporate these strategies into the curriculum for kids who aren't on the Math Counts team. That's certainly a good thing.

I am not sure how this winds up working for highly gifted children. To accommodate them in a Singapore Math curriculum, one would have to rely on acceleration. If a kid has mastered the year's 10 concepts, bump her to the next year. But, on the other hand, even in the absence of acceleration, Singapore math seems to bring so many kids up to the advanced level on international comparisons that perhaps even many gifted kids are reasonably challenged. After all, Singaporean 4th graders start learning algebra (though they don't call it that -- it's presented as simply figuring out numbers you don't know in a problem).


mathmom said...

Singapore Math offers several supplemental workbooks that might be used for differentiation -- there are books with extra practice on the basics, as well as books with challenging word problems and other challenges, which might be useful for gifted kids without necessarily accelerating them.

Anonymous said...

Another major factor is that young Singaporeans take private 1 to 1 tuition. It is the rule rather than the exception.

Parents are very keen to see their kids go to "good" primary schools and will hence make their kids take a *lot* of private tuition.

Just to give you an idea of how crazy things are here, primary schools have a alumni.

So what this means is, if the parents went to a particular primary school, the kid is given priority.

If cases where a popular school has a really high amount of applications, there is a *balloting system* to determine who gets it.

The same principle applies to secondary school.

It is a *very* stressful system for all students. I don't think the US wants such a system.

In fact, I wouldn't want to see that system in any other country in the world.

Kevin said...

I don't know how the Singapore books work in Singapore, but we used them with my highly gifted son in place of the rather boring drill-and-kill curriculum that the public school used. The emphasis in the Singapore books is on using and understanding the math, rather than on rote memorization and turn-the-crank algorithms. Word problems are introduced from the beginning and get gradually more sophisticated.

Unlike the "spiral approach" used in mos US math books, where only one concept is used at a time, then dropped for a year until it is done in almost exactly the same way again, the Singapore books use what has been previously learned continuously. The multiplication sections will have multi-step word problems that require addition and subtraction as well as multiplication.

Overall, Singapore Primary Math is an excellent foundation for more advanced math studies.

The Art of Problem Solving book series seems to be a good continuation past the Singapore Primary Math books.

iris said...

what does private tuition has to do with primary school entry, and maths curriculum??

if your child is only in kindergarten, no amount of private tuition can help your child enter into a "good" primary school since result-based streaming only takes place six years later. No one is asking for maths results from 7 seven yr olds!

private tuition is common, but certainly not the rule. most of the time the pressure comes from the parents, and the achievement they desire for their children, and not from the schools.

one thing to note - the Singapore Math curriculum is now leaning towards understand/word-based problem sums, a level of proficiency in English is necessary. A child with a poor grasp of English will have problem understanding and decoding the questions.

and yes, i am a Singaporean and i have two boys. And no, they don't take tuition.

GEP said...

I have read a number of comments on the Singapore Math and I think the magic is not just in the Math Work Books alone.

It's a complete Singapore Educational System.

It's the Ministry of Education's centralised framework, it's the parents, it's the students, it's the culture, it's the resources, it's the teachers' training, ..., it's the home environment, it's the computers and resources, it's the annual assessment, it's the placement of the child, and it's a whole lot of supporting framework.

By merely using the Singapore Math Work books is but one dimension of a multi-dimensional approach to education and customisation for its citizens.

It may work for some and it may not work for others.

What can be learnt from the Singapore Math experience is to understand that there can be another approach and to see which aspects of the solution is suitable for adoption in another country.

In Singapore, the family support for education is very strong. Education is given very high priority.

Anonymous said...

I am a Singaporean.

Children here start learning algebra in Grade 7 (Secondary School). Algebra is not in the Primary School Mathematics curriculum. Students use models to solve problem sums and are not taught algebra in Primary School.

Anonymous said...

Singapore's math system may be relly great in terms of results but overall,i dont think its a good idea for the us to adopt this system cos singapore's education system has long been criticized for the lack of emphasis on creativity. Which is why there arent any Singaporean versions of 'bill gates' or 'steve jobs' and at the end of the day , the education system just creates really smart people but very few innovators , which is why singapore hires them from europre and the us(in sectors like nano research etc.)

P.S. Im Singaporean

james abram said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Singapore Math. I just realized that like US the Philippines should also try and adopt it in our curriculum.