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:
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.
Here's an example: