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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Do you want Singaporean Education? Really?

In consideration of all I've heard about Singapore, particularly the math texts, I wonder... No, not true. I don't wonder. I would not want this for my son. Period.

"In the pursuit of academic excellence, Singaporean parents force their children to study long hours to make the grade.  In the fierce process, Singapore children are denied the joys of childhood. This explains why Singapore children are more stressed and tensed compared to Canadian children with their happy and carefree outlook.  Children of Singapore friends who visit me in Canada tend to be more reserved and do not interact well. More interestingly, almost all of them would bring their school work during these visits. The parents made sure that their kids did certain hours of studies everyday despite the fact that they were on holidays. It is a strange trend amongst Singapore parents who want to be one-up on others. It is a reflection of the typical Singapore “kaisu” culture."

Read more HERE


colleenk said...

Hi Glenn,

While I would not want any student's k-6 math education based solely on Singapore Math, I have to commend the program for its challenging word problems and thoughtful transition from concrete to abstract ideas.

I run an after school math program that uses SM bar models to teach younger students how to solve word problems. I've seen 4th and 5th grade students who could not even set up basic word problems solve very complex, algebraic word problems after several months. Those students are now in prealgebra and algebra courses at school and tell me they still use the models to help make problems more visual.

Here's a typical 5th grade word problem:

Scott had some baseball cards. He gave away 5/8 of them. If he gave away 120 baseball cards, how many did he have at first?

In most US texts, the question would be:

Scott has 120 baseball cards. He gave away 5/8 of them. How many did he give away?

The US version is straight forward. Students just have to find 5/8 of 120. Once they recognize that the operation needed is multiplication, they're all set. A visual isn't even necessary for most kids.

The Singapore version makes you stop and think. In this problem, 5/8 of all the cards is 120. This definitely requires a model.Posing the question in this way results in a deeper understanding of fractions.

I would never use Singapore Math exclusively but there are some teaching ideas that are well worth a second look. And working through the 5th and 6th grade problems has deepened my own understanding of elementary math.

ERKO said...

Colleen :

thanks for the thoughtful comment about the program, especially the example. I agree with what you say about how the program is oriented and how it challenges the student to really understand important math.

In the American context, would this program really work? As a math teacher, the pressures to make things "real" and more importantly, "understandable" and "testable" seem overwhelming. The push to "differentiate" instruction: providing activities at each of your students "level" would seem to contradict themselves in Singapore Math.

I have never been to Singapore, but my understanding is that there is a lot of emphasis placed on after school practice, drilling of basic fact at home and a general understanding the EFFORT, not TALENT is what brings success in school.

My experience in diverse America is quite different as an educator. Many of my non-Asian students come to school expecting to learn it all in my class. Homework is chaotic in most groups of students.

When class gets harder, such as the problem you state below, and even when I explain and model work, many families and administrators rebel and say that I am missing their "developmental" level.

It is not clear to me at all that in the American context, we can actually implement Singapore math faithfully.

But my bigger question: upon reading the blog post about Singapore: would I really even want so much out of school pressure on my own son? To what end? I want the best education for my son, like all parents, but I do believe there is more than drilling and homework when we get home. I want him to care about school, but not stress about it. I want him to be responsible for his learning, but not feel deficient if something doesn't go perfectly.

But I should probably spend time in Singapore before I actually come to such conclusions. I bet there is more diversity there than is being credited in the blog post I referred to.

CassyT said...

You are right that there is a LOT more diversity in some ways in Singapore than in the U.S. Getting a straight answer out of anyone about the amount of after-school tutoring that goes on is challenging. Every student I spoke to in a Secondary school had either a sibling, parent or grandparent working with or tutoring them after hours. About half went to a tutoring center.

That being said, Singapore schools have some of the same problems we have. One headmaster singled out students addicted to video gaming!

CassyT said...

I like Colleen's example of the word problem, but one isn't enough to demonstrate the complexity of the curriculum. Here's a series of several Singapore Math word problems from 5th grade that show how the lessons progress in challenge:
Singapore Word Problem Progression

colleenk said...


I think I make a distinction between Singapore Math (the workbooks and methodologies) and the Singaporean view of education and schooling (as I understand it). In fact, I've removed Singapore Math completely out of its cultural context and see it as simply another math curriculum. All that matters to me is the presentation of concepts. I borrow ideas from that curriculum that make sense to me as a math teacher. I mentioned the bar models (Cassy is right. One example does not do it justice). I also like the idea of number bonds. The program begins with pairs that make 10, then 100, 1(deicmals and fractions), etc. and does a lot of mental math work.

The program itself does not require many hours at home or any after school tutoring. Opting to use the Singapore Math curriculum is not at all advocating the Singaporean approach to learning. It does not mean there would be any additional pressure placed upon students. It's just a different way to teach the fundamentals.

I think the ideal math program is one that uses the best lessons and instructional methods from all that is available to us. My own classes are a mix of constructivism, direct teaching, and investigation. I do like the Singapore Math approach to word problems and think it's a powerful tool for students to have.

I understand the limitations you face and the demands placed upon you as a math teacher. If it were solely up to me, I'd teach math as a series of programming projects and role playing games. I think math would be relevant, mastered, and enjoyed that way. I do this to some extent now but only after the mandated work is completed.

I think you have to do what's best for your own students. You know what works for them better than anyone so plan lessons accordingly. From what I've read, it seems you've been doing that very well.

Carry on....

ERKO said...


Great distinction. I have some example texts for Singapore math for 6th grade. I, too, am impressed with the word problems. That is one of the biggest problems all US math teachers face. I also think you have point: use what we can, as long as it is coherent and supports student learning.

Thanks for this discussion. I look forward to more.