Teaching children to understand maths, not just do maths; the Singapore way

Post date: Feb 18, 2014 6:39:08 PM

Singapore Math is the name given to the math curriculum developed in the country of Singapore.

In the 1980's, students in Singapore were ranked in the lower half of all countries tested in mathematics. Beginning in 1993, Singapore ranked number one in the world in mathematics, and it continues to hold the top or second position to this day. So the question is how is maths taught in Singapore, and what changed from the 1980s to the 1990s? And how is this different or similar to the way maths is taught in Ireland and other countries?

Some suggest that Children in Singapore excel at math because parents care and that it's the strong work ethic among the children, and especially the parents, that spur them on to succeed. Certainly, as any teachers will agree, if the parents are keen for their child to succeed and support both the children and the teacher, then success is a more likely outcome. However, this doesn't explain the sudden initial rise through the ranks. And it also doesn't explain how the college students in a US university who experienced their primary education in Asia, had a much better understanding of the key concepts of primary algebra, than their counterparts in the same course, who had received their primary education in the US.

For the most part, the math content in Singapore Math is the same as the math content in most countries, including Ireland. Singapore Math recognises that for children, what they learn in primary school is the basis of all future math learning, and thus places huge emphasis on the base-ten system, problem solving and mental maths. But then, so does the Irish Mathematics curriculum. Problem-solving and the development of problem solving skills was, and still is, a core methodology of the 1999 curriculum across all subjects and especially maths. And the importance of both it and mental maths has been emphasised in practically every report concerning the teaching of maths in primary schools that has been published since, from the WSE reports of individual schools right up to the most recent Numeracy and Literacy guidelines. So why are our students not scoring as high as those in Singapore?

It's all good and well to acknowledge the importance of these skills; it's another thing entirely to teach them in a structured and developmental way, from junior infants right up to sixth, countrywide. And while we all follow the curriculum for our classes, (the what-to-teach bit), for the most part, how we teach a topic is largely governed by the textbook scheme in the class or school. And in my humble opinion, none of the schemes currently available teach problem-solving, mental maths, visualisation skills and how to use concrete materials using a structured or logical progression; nor do they enable the teachers to teach these skills in a progressive and spiral way throughout the classes.

By the way, the one variable that did change in Singapore between the 1980s and 1993, the first year that Singapore topped the TIMSS study, was the books the teachers were using to teach primary mathematics. Following on from their previous disappointing results, the Ministry of Education launched a new curriculum, which relied heavily on constructivist methodologies and a Concrete - Pictorial - Abstract (CPA) approach based on the research of Jerome Bruner, not unlike what happened here in 1999. Unlike Ireland, however, the Ministry of Education, also published the books that were to support this curriculum, and it was this scheme that was used by every teacher throughout the state. Updated since, it is still a scheme that presents a structured approach to problem-solving, the development of both problem-solving and mental maths strategies, where the emphasis is on exploration, making connections and deepening understanding.

Not that I'm necessarily advocating the publication of just one state produced scheme for our school system; given the economic troubles that our successive governments have had in the last decade, I'm not so sure Maths is their strong point; and I shiver to think that we might be reliant on their best efforts!

If this article has peaked your interest, and you'd like to find out a bit more about incorporating some of the Singapore Math approaches in your teaching, please come along to Athlone Education Centre on Thurs 27 Feb 2014 from 7-9.30pm. Participants should bring a laptop/device if available and their own maths textbooks. Please contact me claire.primarycpd@gmail.com to secure a place

You can also check out some of the links below: