I know that Singapore Math refers to the curriculum they have in Singapore where emphasis is placed on model drawing, problem solving, and mental math strategies. According to TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) students in 4th and 8th grade mathematics rate higher there than anywhere else in the world. Two years ago when I was in Singapore I decided to talk with people about their educational system and do some exploring on my own. I was curious to know what made their system unique.
Here are my observations:
We’ll start with some history. In 1966 the government in Singapore declared English as the primary language. One objective was to create a common language among the ethnic groups in Singapore. Another was to help the country integrate with the rest of the world. Approximately 50 percent of the population speaks Mandarin Chinese, 30 percent Malay, and 10 percent Tamil. In many cases English is the second language though officially it’s the first.
According to reports by McKinsey and Company, the Singapore’s education system and teacher education programs are ranked among the best in the world. In addition, they have made huge strides in narrowing the achievement gaps between their ethnic groups. The changes have been significant, widespread, and sustained – improving from fair in 1985 to excellent in 2010.
I took a train to Popular Bookstore (yep, that’s the name) where students get their books. The country is small and takes about thirty minutes to travel most anywhere. One wall in the store was dedicated to math and science textbooks. A couple things struck me. The textbooks were all inexpensive. I saw none of the thick, shiny papered, hard-covered books we have here – you know, the ones that cost $50 to $100. The books were all paperback and cost between $5.00 and $12.00. The instruction was quite clear (often just a few words in a cartoon balloon). I’m sure this makes those with English-as-a-second language more comfortable. But it made me wonder why the thick, heavy textbooks that we use in the States couldn’t be simpler. And I saw many supplementary textbooks and workbooks that parents could buy for their kids for further study.
Parents take a high interest in their kids’ success in Singapore. The competition is intense since they have only three universities and not everyone can go.
The school year is divided into two semesters. The first begins in the beginning of January and ends in June; the second begins in July and ends in December. There is no summer break. (Actually Singapore has no summer. It sits on the equator and it’s always hot.) Students have no chance to forget what they have learned and teachers don’t have to spend a month each year reviewing what the students have forgotten.
Classes occur between 7:30 and 1 p.m. But then teachers spend the afternoon helping students with remedial work – teachers work hard there as they do here. Some students even attend a second private school.
How math is taught probably plays a role in the success of education in Singapore, but we can’t ignore parent involvement, the government’s support, teachers’ efforts, and the continuous study without a summer slump. These must also play a part.