Singapore math - some updates

By Murray Bourne, 01 Sep 2007

There was a flurry of interest in Singapore Math when it was introduced in the US in the late 1990s. [See this Washington Post article Looking East for Math Techniques from Mar 2000.]

Interest waned somewhat when the burden of No Child Left Behind consumed American schools. There was no time for Singapore Math-style enrichment since everyone was too busy preparing for standardized tests. Ironically, Singapore Math was introduced in the US in the first place because it was seen as rigorous and was rooted in a standardised test system.

Having lived in Singapore now for over 10 years and taught mathematics here, I have followed the Singapore Math story quite closely.

Don’t believe the stereotype that all Singaporean (and by extension, all Asian) students are math whizzes. The best are excellent, yes, but there are still plenty of them who struggle with all the usual difficulties: algebra, trigonometry, logarithms, calculus. And with Singapore’s quite rigid ’there is no room for failure’ pressure, there are many students who just cannot wait to finish their mathematics traumas., who claim to be the "official distributors" of Singapore Math text books, have a brief history at Singapore Math Story.

Now for some updates. dispels some Myths about Singapore Math. They also have links to the TIMMS reports (showing Singapore’s #1 math position) and American Institutes for Research (AIR) study, "What the United States Can Learn From Singapore’s World-Class Mathematics System".

Don’t miss the extensive FAQs (several pages) on the site.

Dave Marain over at MathNotations blog has some posts about Singapore Math: Singapore Math - Primary Math 6B Placement Test... and Singapore Math - Part II - It isn’t just the materials!. I found it interesting in the discussions how US teachers are nervous about giving a non-calculator test to their students.

So there you go. As Singapore moves away from rigid standardised tests to more Western-style creativity and interdisciplinarity, the US moves in the opposite direction towards a more rigid standardised testing system.

The great Education Experiment continues...

See the 2 Comments below.

2 Comments on “Singapore math - some updates”

  1. Murray says:

    It isn’t just that students get to advanced topics earlier in some other countries. I’m more interested in the kinds of questions they are expected to solve. Do you see this as significant or do you believe it is the overall educational philosophy in Singapore that distinguishes it?

    The "educational philosophy in Singapore" (at the primary and secondary level) is very much focused on external standardized tests.

    I was very surprised when I got here to learn that the ’O-Levels’ (end of grade 10) and ’A-Levels’ (end of Junior College, ie 2 years of pre-university after O-levels) are administered from Britain! (The examiners are the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.)

    At primary level (grades 1 to 6), the students have the joy of the PSLE (a Singapore-based series of 2-hour examinations in English, mother tongue, mathematics and science). [See also Bilingualism in Politics.]

    So to answer your question - if those questions are going to ’come out’ in the examination, they will be drilled like mad in class. [One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the inherent ability of Singaporeans for rote learning. Read out a list of 20 words and they can happily recite them back to you. This is after years of testing in the Singapore system...] So I guess the ’quality’ of the questions is a result of the examination writers’ enthusiasm for such questions.

    You may also be interested to poke around the Singapore Ministry of Education site.

    I might even repeat some of your comments and mine if that’s ok with you.

    Fine with me 🙂

  2. Dave Marain says:

    Thank you for debunking some myths (excellent site) and providing first-hand information. It doesn't surprise me that there are many inaccuracies in reports I've heard about and read. It's interesting to see that there isn't a 'one size fits all' approach to the materials, however, the comments about 'essence' were the most telling. The 'form' of individual materials may change but the essential philosophy, not so much...

    It also seems that the supplementary workbooks in the program are significant and, at some point, I will need to order some of these materials to become more knowledgeable about the program.

    I have had the pleasure of teaching and providing SAT instruction for Asian students for the past 30 years (simply the demographic in my area), so I have come to know a great deal about their culture, after-school tuition programs, and their math curriculum. They found my comments about the superior performance of Singapore students interesting. Some characteristics they used to describe the tiny nation included 'very clean, 'very strict discipline in the schools' and affluent. One student commented, "You don't really believe that every student there can do all of these problems, do you!"

    My blog, however, focused on an actual ratio problem from the 6B Placement test which was really a 7th 'grade' pre-test from what I gathered. There was rich discussion about the heuristic of using fraction bars to represent units but, in the end, the quality and difficulty of the problem came through over all of the other conceptions and misconceptions about the program. That's why the focus of my blog is problem-solving rather than debating overall philosophies which I generally consider futile.

    The calculator vs. non-calculator issue was mentioned in my posts and comments but it was not my focus. It's not a secret that students with a solid foundation in arithmetic can regain computational proficiency if forced to. They didn't enjoy it, and for the geometry questions, it was the most time-consuming part of the problem, but they did it - end of story there.

    Again, zac -- the proof is in the materials and the level of complexity of the problem-solving. Many teacher and students were taken aback by how complicated some of these questions were. I commented that, if Singapore students, were exposed to these kinds of questions frequently over time, they wouldn't find them so unusual or formidable. That made sense to them (of course I was only speculating that this was the case since I didn't have many samples of problem sets).

    Your final comment about the irony of two nations whose assessment philosophies are somehow morphing into the other's is fascinating but not a shock to me. I've read for many years that Asian nations have been watching American education closely and have been interested in fostering more creativity in their students and less rigidity. The problem-solving curriculum adopted by Singapore math in the 90's is a reflection of some of this. But there's a key point here that is often missed. We've had a problem-solving curriculum in this country for many years now, BUT THE PROBLEMS ARE NOT AS CHALLENGING! Philosophies don't equate to performance. It's all about the QUALITY of the materials and instruction as well as the overarching philosophy (the 'essence') - always has been, always will be. it isn't just that students get to advanced topics earlier in some other countries. I'm more interested in the kinds of questions they are expected to solve. Do you see this as significant or do you believe it is the overall educational philosophy in Singapore that distinguishes it?

    I plan on posting another article on Singapore Math, referring to your latest post and including some of your links. i might even repeat some of your comments and mine if that's ok with you. Of course, I will give you the attribution and link readers directly to this article. Thanks again...

    I am indebted to you for providing genuine and provocative information directly from the source. Thanks!

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