The secret of Singapore Math

Last week, I asked if the New York Times story on Singapore Math described the program accurately. Barry Garelick, co-founder of the U.S. Coalition for World Class Math, answers the question on the Core Knowledge Blog: No way.

(The Times) described a program that strangely sounded like the math programs being promoted by reformers of math education, relying on the cherished staples of reform: manipulatives, open-ended problems, and classroom discussion of problems. 

. . . Those of us familiar with Singapore Math from having used it with our children are wondering just what program the article was describing.  Spending a week on the numbers 1 and 2 in Kindergarten?  Spending an entire 4th grade classroom period discussing the place value ramifications of the number 82,566?

Singapore Math books provide pictures, examples and problems, but doesn’t tell teachers how to teach, he writes.  If a kindergarten teacher is spending a week on the numbers 1 and 2, that’s the teacher’s choice.

Singapore Math uses traditional approaches to math education, such as “explicit instruction and giving students many problems to solve,” Garelick writes. This is not what math reformers advocate. Nor does Singapore Math rely heavily on manipulatives.  It does use “bar modeling” to help children solve problems.  

 Singapore’s strength is the logical consistency of the development of mathematical concepts. And much to the chagrin of educators who may have learned differently, mastery of number facts and arithmetic procedures is part and parcel of conceptual understanding.  Starting with conceptual understanding and using procedures to underscore it is an invitation to disaster—such approach is making profits for  outfits like Sylvan, Huntington and Kumon.

The underlying message in articles such as the Times’ is that math education is bad in the U.S. because it is not being taught according to the ideals of reformers—and the reason it is successful in Singapore is because it is being taught that way.  Never considered is the possibility that the reform minded methods and textbooks written to implement them are one of the root causes of poor math education in this country.  Katharine Beals in her blog “Out in Left Field” does an excellent job describing this.

Garelick plans to start his career as a math teacher next year, after he retires from the Environmental Protection Agency, where he’s an analyst.

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  1. We DO teach at home with blocks during the unit on volume, but otherwise I don’t think we’ve ever used manipulatives in our math program, which we have used since grade 3.

  2. Amy Zimmer says:

    Thanks for bringing this up. It sounds like Singapore math is traditional and not at all intuitive.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    We homeschool. My oldest used Singapore levels 2A through 6B of their Primary series (the most popular series). Singapore’s more narrow scope is one of the reasons it’s more effective. It does not include many topics commonly found in typical textbooks with their throw everything up against the wall and hope something sticks strategy. This allows more time to focus on the most important concepts. It’s significantly less wordy then most textbooks as well. An average student has an ample amount of time to complete a level in each year, with plenty of time to stop and add additional practice if the student is having a difficult time grasping a particular concept. American math, at least at the elementary level, in my experience, is a mile wide and an inch deep. Singapore offers significantly more deepth while attempting less “coverage”. One of the reasons we continue to fail at math instruction is fear. We fear the uncompetitiveness of our kids and pile on additional material in the hopes this will remedy the situation. It has the opposite effect.

  4. And, what is classroom discipline like in Singapore? Home environment and expectations? Student attendance? Until these type of things are delt with in US public schools, the US will continue to fall behind the rest of the advancing, modern world. Remember, Singapore is a nation where public punishment may be administered for tossing gum on the ground. Until parents begin parenting and schools have the right expell the bullies and others who repeatedly demonstrate they don’t want ot be in a classroom, the US will not advance. There must be a restoration of a disciplined learning environment for the young people who want to be there and learn.

  5. Even with good student attendance, good classroom disclipline and a good home environment, use of programs such as Everyday Math, or Investigations will not result in students learning the math skills and concepts they need to know.

    A common refrain is that the success of Singapore Math is due to extra school factors such as the drilling of math facts outside school, and the culture that has high educational expectations. A look at the results in schools that have made a serious effort to adapt to the Singapore books shows that the well -designed curriculum just may have something to do with it. And yes, in order to make Singapore Math succeed, teachers need to spend time ensuring that students master their math facts–something that can be easily overlooked with Everyday Math and Investigations.

  6. On a lighter note, the “secret” of Singapore Math isn’t its above-average textbooks, nor its better-quaified teachers, albeit both are “pedagogically decent,” but rather its high-demanding parents who couldn’t see themselves nurturing children who would have to beg or steal in their later years, if the latter fail to graduate with a general math education.

    If only these journalists, politicians, and math education researchers or decision makers would spend some quality time in Singapore, mingling around with the locals, and not just interviewing teachers from some top schools, who are more likely to give politically correct answers to foreign-born interviewers, they’d see first-hand the contributing [often undesirable] factors why our students outshine their peers from other countries. When we compare students in highly-competitive China, Japan, Hong Kong or Korea with ours, it’s like comparing our local students to those in the US.

    We want our children to live decently and morally, especially when we don’t have any social welfare and unemployment benefits to see them through when the unexpected strikes. There’s an unspoken wish that most citizens would prefer to have their last heartbeat when they’re still working than to be seen or treated as “social parasites” during their retirement age.

    We need to look beyond the TIMSS ranking, beyond the number of schools, states, or countries adopting a particular math series or program, and beyond what the media often want us to read about the success or failure of one math program over another. For decades, the US seems to be buying and reading all kinds of “self-help math textbooks” but never quite looking at itself inwardly. Math success is no different: All those math gurus can only tell us what had worked for them. Often, the answer simply lies inside or within us!

  7. Quite surprised The NYT did not provide links to the following which include extensive first-hand coverage of topic by one of the featured teachers in the article, Bill Jackson.

    First is an excellent four-part exclusive series in the Daily Riff, “Singapore Math Demystified!” (also displayed on the Singapore Math home page link provided by The Times):

    In addition, another guest post series by Jackson related to this topic is the multi-part “Travel Journal to Singapore” about teacher training and professional development in general and as it connects to Singapore Math: