kitchen table math, the sequel: a math class of 41 pupils

Thursday, August 27, 2009

a math class of 41 pupils

Ms. Sherry Tai, my young Singapore primary school math teacher (I think she was in her mid-20s) formed a personal bond with each one of us 41 students. 40+ students is a pretty typical class size at the primary and secondary school level. She was also our science teacher, our form teacher and our PE teacher, though plenty of other teachers taught our same class.

I remember her well because I was a "problem student" (partially because of my harebrained personality, partially because I had come from American middle school...) and she frequently confronted me about my performance.

What was her math class like? Ah, I remember sometimes she would be marking workbooks (and we'd be doing some other work, like practice problem sets), and she'd call people up individually about their work.

Being the problem student, I would be frequently called up of course. Being called up was annoying and sometimes intimidating because she'd be like, "why did you do this problem wrong?!" and you'd be like, "huh? I don't see what I did wrong?!" but then you'd be hushed with her explanation and sent back to your seat to redo the problem.

I'd feel sort of smug when the prefects and class monitor and monitress (and other model students) would get called up, and I wouldn't. Ahh, incentive for doing good work! As I got the hang of Singapore Math, I found myself being called up less and less. The dreaded 5-point word problems became less like monsters and more like delightful challenges I tackled with confidence. One thing that didn't seem to go away however, was my tendency to forget to bring some little thing to school (like say, a worksheet, an arts and crafts item required for that day, sometimes stationery, like correction pens...). A problem I suffered in American elementary school. A problem also suffered in college.

And oh yeah, correction pens. Let me tell you about those. In Singapore, stuff is often done with three sorts of pens. You need to bring a blue/black pen, a red pen, and a green pen to school. This colour requirement caused me endless grief initially (after moving from America) because I would have a knack of losing pens, or just not bringing all of them. But why this colour scheme?

Well, let's say you're doing a math workbook. You do the problem in blue/black ink. Your teacher (or your classmate) marks it in red ink. Sometimes, you do the marking for others, so you also need a red pen. If you get a problem wrong and receive it back, you're supposed to do the correction in green pen. (This scheme also readily applies to science and language work...) You do this for workbooks, worksheets, mock exams, real exams (after you get them back). You even do it for group work (dun dun dun). The colour scheme helps you keep track (and organise) about what you did wrong, and what you did right.

When I moved from America of course, I was not used to this system, so often I'd return marked workbooks without doing all of the required corrections, or I'd do the green pen corrections wrong, which usually resulted in a sharp call for "John Soong! Up here please!" every math class for the first few weeks. Yes, the corrections are supposed to include your working. (Didn't know that at first.) Yes, doing corrections in green ink for a 5-point problem you got 4 points off of was tedious.

Now, I actually have little idea what "rapid formative assessment" is supposed to mean rigourously. We had plenty of "assessment books" though, and as the PSLE approached, she made us buy additional assessment books on top of what the syllabus required, just so she could have the enjoyment of marking more of our work. Oh, and she would schedule remedial classes afterschool. For all 41 of us. ("Unless you had a 100 on your CA2 [no one did], you have to attend.") And by now, I'd faithfully do the problems, the working, the corrections (which became fewer) ... but forget things like the $2.50 I was supposed to bring to pay for the extra book, some parent's signature required for the remedial or the Edusave form. I think in one term (about two and a half months) I'd generally accumulate ten infractions.

None of the classwork was really graded. I can't remember the exact breakdown, but I think it's like the 2 CA exams account for like 30% of your grade and the two SA exams account for 70%. And the infractions ... well, other than being embarrassing, they aren't really life-changing. (What happened is that the group with the least amount of collective infractions at the end of the term won some sort of reward.) So I guess all those workbook problems were "formative assessments", sort of? Sometimes even one of the major exams (the CA1) does not have an impact on grade or has very low weighting (like 5%).

Does Singapore education have a cultural component? Prolly. But it's actually rather simple:

a) The work isn't graded. But teachers will nag you about it if you don't do it correctly. Incessantly. Even if you're only one out of 41 students.
b) It doesn't matter that the CA1 doesn't impact your final grade that much. It's just something you don't want to do badly on. Not only will the teachers nag you about bad results, so will your parents. And it goes on your report book. In fact your end-of-year grades don't affect your GPA, because GPA doesn't exist in primary and secondary school.

If you have a "bad home environment", your parents might not nag you about your performance, but there's still plenty of reprimand to face at school. In fact, my single mother almost never made me do my homework. My teachers did.


Anonymous said...

How long was the school day there? How much time was a math class? How much time was spent with her presenting material? how much on working problems/examples?

Culture is key, and in this case, the culture is determined by having a teacher who demands you work a problem until it's perfect, and having all of the other students do the same. Expectations are high, everyone does the work no matter how grumbling. Positive reinforcement and rewards are present as is embarrassment/shame.

It might as well be the negative of most classrooms in America.

le radical galoisien said...

Well classroom time was relatively short compared to here. School started at 7:20 and ended at 12:50 (if you were in the morning session) ... that's just 5 hours (after accounting for recess and flag-raising/assembly).

Most subjects (except PE/music/art/etc.) are taught every day an off day every week (though I think social studies had 2 off days).

Most subjects had half an hour of classroom time each day, except for English and Second Language which always had an hour each day (except for the off day of course). Each course would always have a 1 hour period each week to introduce new material however. So math would have 3 30 min. periods and 1 hour period each week for lecture / group work / etc.

As PSLE approached, the teachers clearly thought this wasn't enough, so they scheduled afterschool reinforcement where they could lecture us more (in review) lol. The hour period is basically the only time teachers broke out the overhead projector.

le radical galoisien said...

On second thought, I should say actually, the 4-day non-language subjects (e.g. math and science) prolly had 2 1-hour sessions each week, just that only one of them each week was used for "lecture" (presenting new material). The other was used for structured group work (or some major call-pupils-up time) or basically anything that would require extended involvement.

The other 2 30-min sessions would be used to collect homework, assign problems for classwork, assign new homework, ask people to come up to the board and show their working to the class, that sort of thing. And of course, point out mistakes and correct people where they were wrong. She would only work out a problem for us if no one in the class had any idea how to do it (usually one of those "star" problems she assigned out of the extra assessment books).

Oh, as PSLE approached, we did less syllabus-defined workbooks (since we covered less new material) and lots of mock exams for homework and classwork. Lots of them.

Dawn said...

Thanks for that post. That's the approach I'm aspiring to with my kids (I'm homeschooling). There is no 65%, no A-. There is only right and wrong and if there's wrong then you fix it.

ElizabethB said...

Thanks for sharing. That was very interesting.

She sounds like a great teacher! All my great teachers had some way of checking how each student was doing, but their methods varied.

Katherine said...

Wow...she sounds like an amazing teacher. I cannot imagine having 41 students in a classroom. I often feel overwhelmed with 33 8th graders in what feels like the tiniest classroom ever. Dawn, I agree with you about making them work it until they get it right. The learning comes from identifying and correcting those mistakes. Good luck with your homeschooling.