kitchen table math, the sequel: A Singaporean perspective on Singapore Math

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Singaporean perspective on Singapore Math

I recently came across an online article by a Singaporean named Justin Lee, the founder of two education businesses in Singapore. In reaction to many articles "fussing about Singapore Math on the Internet," Lee writes:
While many authors bemoaned or even whined about the difficulty American kids had with Math, it made me at times sympathetic or even amused. You see, Math in Singapore was highly enjoyable in my time and we dreaded other subjects like English and Science instead. Why is this so?
One reason, Lee points out, is that, for about 50% of the Singaporean population, English is not the native language. As a result:
Math in primary school (for 7-12 year olds) was one of the easiest subjects to ace. It did not involve language application as extensively as Science. Although the word problems in Math papers still involved the English language, it required us only to write one-liners as conclusions. Many friends of my age then scored above 80 marks out of a 100 in Math on a regular basis. Being able to score so highly in Math (as opposed to barely passing English or Science) easily made Math our favourite subject in school!
This, of course, makes me think of all the language impaired math buffs who suffer under Reform Math's much more language-intensive "story problems" and verbal explanations requirements.

Lee goes on to lament a development in Singapore that is taking math standards in Singapore in the opposite direction as that which American math standards have followed. Apparently, "there has been a rising trend of schools setting impossible-to-pass Math tests and examinations in the late 2000s." Instead of parents being upset that standards are too low, Singapore parents are upset that standards, which have long been higher than ours, have now risen too high.

Lee proceeds to describe how he and his classmates found Singapore math to be easy and enjoyable, with plenty of time left over for fun:
It is true that the Mathematical concepts are built year upon year and concepts that have been taught are not taught again, but merely revisited briefly. This is as opposed to the slightly incoherent system in the US, where kids can sometimes wonder why they are doing the same things again. While this arrangement may appear to be harder on Singapore students, I actually felt it was very easy on us. In fact, we felt that it was a gift from heaven to be able to do fractions at primary 6 again, right after we learnt something similar the year before.
It might appear as though a Singapore student would have had to spend many hours poring their beady eyes other Math textbooks and Math problems to acquire such ‘astounding’ proficiency in the subject. The truth is, the pace of learning was rather fine. I could do quite well in school without having to attend extra lessons (tuitions), and school only lasted from 730am to 1pm, Monday to Friday. There was still ample time for monkey business after 1pm.
To sum up, I am positive that Math in primary school was enjoyable for most students in the 1990s. This may not be so after internal Math examination standards were revised upwards in the late 2000s, but we shall address this issue in another article.
I look forward to more! In our self-absorbed, American-exceptionalist country, the Singaporean perspective, which should be a key element in the debate over math reform, is all too often overlooked (le radical galoisien?).


Catherine Johnson said...

What a great find.

People here ***always*** see Asian student success as being the result of cram school drudgery.

I've forgotten what all Stigler & Stevenson had to say on this subject, but one thing they did say: Japanese kids were watching just as much TV as our kids!

(I better check that...)

I remember, definitely, that the idea that Japanese kids had a higher suicide rate - because they were so fantastically overburdened with school work - was completely false.

iirc, there are moments in Asian education where there is intense exam pressure. But these are particular passages in a child's educational history.

(I'll have to go back and look all this up...)

Anonymous said...

The Daily Riff did some posts on Singapore math recently: