When the ambiguous high school math problem went viral in April, complete with a couple of seemingly arbitrary answers, it sent many older Americans into a tailspin of confusion. Given the relatively cryptic clues provided, numerous wondered, how could you most likely reach a definitive answer?
But the quiz wasn’t designed for American adults; it had been developed for advanced teenagers in Singapore — and as it’s reached stumped web surfers around the globe, it became the foremost 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 E Singapore Math Inc., a corporation that distributes Singaporean math textbooks within 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 faculty near Boston who helps to implement the Singapore Math for homeschoolers curriculum at schools across the country.
And students and parents in Singapore are aware of it.
“In the States, we tend to — whether we love 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 that the thing that creates you smarter in math.”
In 2013, only 34 percent of fourth-graders within the U.S. performed at a proficient level in math, consistent with 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, quite 2,500 schools and a good greater number of homeschoolers have made the leap.
Here are five 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 simplest. Established by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, TIMSS 2011, the foremost recent report, ranked Singaporean fourth-graders in the 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 simplest at problem-solving, ready 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 succeed in an answer; they find out how the equation works. “We generally cover 13 to fifteen 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, and 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 yank 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.
4. Layered strategies repose on each other
With the Singaporean curriculum, one skillset may be a foundation for future lessons “like LEGO bricks carefully situated next to the opposite,” Mahoney said. This differs from the standard approach within the U.S., which follows a “spiral” — where the material is revisited within the course of months or years, which Mahoney said is usually 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 highest.
It’s no surprise Common Core standards mirror several Singaporean approaches, including a narrower focus with greater depth. But to rose align with the standards in each state, Brillon said Singapore Math Inc. introduced new textbooks last year.