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What is Singapore Math and Why is it All the Rage?

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Year after year, Singapore ranks first in both math and science, when compared to every other country on earth. This didn’t go unnoticed, with neighbouring Asian countries adopting their curriculum with enthusiasm. What makes Singapore Math different is that it teaches math by doing, using inanimate objects and other tactile aids. Furthermore, by teaching through “play”, the students do not perceive the sessions as work” and tend to progress quicker than other formats.

This can sound a bit too abstract but let’s clarify with the following possible scenario. A teacher presents the class with a collection of pennies. First, the class is to count (add) them, to see how much there are. Now they are to take some and put them in a different category (subtract) as well as sort them into equal piles (divide). The students are then asked to see how many piles (of so many coins) make a grand total.

This kind of approach is applied to all areas of math, including fractions, algebra, geometry and more. Furthermore, the students are quicker to apply the new principles to real life, building value for themselves to see. While students are said to learn fewer concepts, they go deeper into core areas, allowing students to build on their (already) strong foundation.

The Singapore Math Curriculum is broken down into three parts: concrete, pictorial, and abstract. The concrete step uses tactical aids, like coins, paper clips, and marbles. The pictorial phase employs rich visual aids in media and print. They can understand fractions and percentages by seeing how much of a shape is shaded in.

The final step, abstract, teaches students to apply the principles they learned previously without any visual or tactile aids. This is different than the traditional method which teaches math (primarily) through objective numbers.

From its creation in 1982, Singapore Math has become one of the standards for effective math retention and application. Found in many prestigious private schools, it has branched out to homeschool programs and other alternative learning formats. Related closely to the common core, it guides students to engage the material as if they were examining something they found in nature. It creates a bridge between the student and the outside world. Parents are encouraged by their child’s interest, with math (often) becoming their favourite subject!

Of course, Singapore Math is not for everyone and must be taken in sequence. In other words, the advanced material cannot be understood if previous lessons are not completed successfully. Furthermore, students who have achieved strong standing in advanced classes can work out the concepts covered in previous units.

Singapore Math teachers are trained in this specific pedagogy, as developed by the Singapore Ministry of Education. While the materials are available for purpose online, they are less effective than when guided by a teacher trained in this specific paradigm. As opposed to comparable grading rubrics, the goal is for the student to answer “general” problem-solving questions, especially outside of school.

This boy is using a popular Singapore Math format to understand this problem.

  • Sequential learning allows students to grow without unnecessary busywork, which is great for many students but may be confusing for those who drop into the curriculum later because of a move or a change in schools.

  • It’s not the content that makes Singapore Math different from other methods; it’s the philosophy. Rather than rote memorization, the framework of Singapore Math is developed around the idea that learning to problem-solve and develop mathematical thinking are the key factors to being successful in math.

It may not work well for a nomadic student population.

  • It requires extensive and ongoing teacher training, which is neither financially nor practically feasible in some school districts and not always practical for homeschooled children.


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