The New York Times ran a story on September 30 about Singapore Math being used in some schools in the New York City area. Like many newspaper stories about Singapore Math, this one was no different. It described a program that strangely sounded like the math programs being promoted by reformers of math education, relying on the cherished staples of reform: manipulatives, open-ended problems, and classroom discussion of problems. The only thing the article didn’t mention was that the students worked in small groups.
The mistaken idea that gets repeated in many such articles is that Singapore Math differs from other programs by requiring or imparting a “deep understanding” and that such understanding comes about through a) manipulatives, b) pictures, and c) open-ended discussions. In fact, what the articles represent is what the schools are telling the reporters. What newspapers frequently do not realize when reporting on Singapore Math, is that when a school takes on such a program, it means going against what many teachers believe math education to be about; it is definitely not how they are trained in ed schools. The success of Singapore’s programs relies in many ways on more traditional approaches to math education, such as explicit instruction and giving students many problems to solve, in some ways its very success represented a slap in the face to American math reformers, many of whom have worked hard to eliminate such techniques being used.
Singapore’s strength is the logical consistency of the development of mathematical concepts. And much to the chagrin of educators who may have learned differently, mastery of number facts and arithmetic procedures is part and parcel to conceptual understanding. Starting with conceptual understanding and using procedures to underscore it is an invitation to disaster—such approach is making profits for outfits like Sylvan, Huntington and Kumon.
Fortunately, the logical structure and word problems in Singapore’s books are so good it will work in spite of the disciples of reform. My friend is right. If the education community wants to think that Singapore Math is student-centered and inquiry-based and the realization of US reforms, let them think it. For those of us who know better, it will remain our dirty little secret.
Singapore Math Is “Our Dirty Little Secret”