6 Reasons Why Singapore Math Might Just Be the Better Way

“When is Cheryl’s birthday?”

When the ambiguous high school math problem went viral in April, complete with a handful of seemingly arbitrary answers, it sent many older Americans into a tailspin of confusion. Given the relatively cryptic clues provided, so many wondered, how could you possibly arrive at a definitive answer.

But the quiz wasn’t designed for American adults; it was developed for advanced teenagers in Singapore — and as it’s reached stumped web surfers around the globe, it became the most visible example yet of a national approach to math education that’s raising the bar.

Since the 1980s, schools in Singapore have taken an innovative approach to teaching elementary math — a curriculum that focuses on problem solving with pictures and diagrams. Before the switch, the country’s math students “weren’t even registering on the charts as far as international ratings go,” says Dan Brillon, director of Singapore Math Inc., a company that distributes Singaporean math textbooks in the United States.

Within a decade,  Singapore “shot to the top!”

In the U.S., Kevin Mahoney said he hears it all the time: “I’m just not a math person.” But it doesn’t work that way, said Mahoney, a math curriculum coordinator at a school near Boston who helps to implement the Singapore math curriculum at schools across the country.

And students and parents in Singapore know it.

“In the States, we tend to — whether we like it or not — we believe children are born with mathematical ability,” Mahoney said. “But that’s not true in countries like Singapore, where it’s believed that effort is the thing that makes you smarter in math.”

In 2013, only 34 percent of fourth-graders in the U.S. performed at a proficient level in math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Only 27 percent of U.S. eighth-graders performed at a proficient level in math. Although some school districts have found the Singapore math curriculum is difficult to implement, advocates argue it could boost America’s math scores. So far, more than 2,500 schools — and an even greater number of homeschoolers — have made the leap.

Here are six reasons why “Singapore Math” is catching on in American schools:

1 Singapore students are the world’s math leaders.

Since the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study started ranking countries’ competitiveness in math literacy in 1995, Singapore has consistently ranked among the best. Established by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, TIMSS 2011, the most recent report, ranked Singaporean fourth-graders in first place and eighth-graders in second.

Another international study, the Program for International Student Assessment, shows Singapore’s 15-year-olds are among the best at problem solving, able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts.

2 Singapore Math focuses on mastery, not just learning for a test.

The Singaporean curriculum, which the country’s Ministry of Education created, generally focuses on fewer topics but in greater depth. Students don’t just learn equations to reach an answer; they learn how the equation works. “We generally cover 13 to 15 concepts per grade level,” Brillon said, “but really refining the curriculum allows students to hammer home those skills.”

3 Visual and audible learners are thriving.

Learning math begins with the concrete: blocks, cards, buttons, whatever. Then there are abstract equations: 2 + 3 = 5. But Singapore math introduces the “pictorial” phase — a bridge between concrete and abstract.

Based on the work of American psychologist Jerome Bruner, the Singaporean curriculum begins with hands-on group activities with objects like buttons or dice. Next, students move onto the pictorial phase — drawing representations of concrete objects before moving on to abstract equations.

This visual approach, Brillon said, helps drive Singapore math’s success. “If they were first counting buttons or coins, they would open the book to see buttons or coins,” Brillon said.

4 Layered strategies build upon one another.

With the Singaporean curriculum, one skillset is a foundation for future lessons “like LEGO bricks carefully situated next to the other,” Mahoney said. This differs from the typical approach in the U.S., which follows a “spiral” — where material is revisited in the course of months or years, which Mahoney said is often jarring for teachers and students alike.

5 It aligns with Common Core State Standards.

When the Common Core standards were developed, policymakers looked to the success of other high-performing countries, including countries that scored well on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Remember: Singapore is consistently at the top.

It’s no surprise Common Core standards mirror several Singaporean approaches, including a narrower focus with greater depth. But to better align to the standards in each state, Brillon said Singapore Math Inc. introduced new textbooks last year.

6 Studies show instant improvement.

In 2005, a study from the American Institutes for Research highlighted why Singapore’s approach to teaching math was successful. But the study didn’t show how the approach would work in American classrooms.

As a doctoral student at Northeastern University, Mahoney published the first study examining the effects of Singaporean teaching techniques on American students.

“Across the board in every case, all of these students were able to make substantial gains,” Mahoney said. In June, a study released in the United Kingdom reached a similar conclusion: teaching Singapore math in the west can drive a small gain in students’ math skills. After one academic year of Singapore math education, gains were equivalent to about one extra month of instruction, according to the study.

Still, Mahoney said he is vying for a comprehensive, national study to investigate the effects of the Singapore math curriculum in the U.S. “It’s not something that is radically different,” Mahoney said. “It sounds exotic, but it’s just elementary mathematics taught in a powerful and potent way.”

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