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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