kitchen table math, the sequel: Barry G on the Times story

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Barry G on the Times story

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”


SteveH said...

We still have to deal with full inclusion and trust the spiral issues of K-6. Does bringing in Singapore Math signal a change in educational philosophy, or does it mean that Singapore Math will be trivialized as the next big thing?

It's clear that Everyday Math facilitates a head-in-the-sand approach to timely mastery of basic skills, but what is there in Singapore Math that will force the issue of mastery? Since it doesn't hop around to different topics so quickly, there is a better chance for mastery, but what happens at the end of the year if the job doesn't get done?

If kids get passed along, it's hard to see how any curriclum can help. With Singapore Math, however, I suppose we can be glad that it favors the top end student rather than the low end student. I just can't avoid the feeling that they will screw that up too.

Allison said...

I think your read on Singapore Math is mistaken wrt who it favors. I don't think it favors the top end student more than the low.

It assumes almost nothing is known but the first 10 numbers before starting *first grade*. Even here in MN, K standards require kids to skip count by 2s and 5s and 10s and other things silly for that age.

I don't doubt the material could be ruined, but Singapore Math sticks with a subject to mastery, so following at the right pacing would be a lot better for the lower end students than what we do now.

Now, if a teacher only get through a third of the material, the kids will still fail if pushed up a year. No doubt. Is that as likely to happen? I think not, because it's a much saner way to teach, leaving less children in the wake of ever-spiraling confusion. Still, math teachers in Singapore know much more math than elementary teachers here. Can our elementary teachers really teach it without a lot of intervention?

Allison said...

To Barry's point, I think American ed schools have so fetishized the ideas of manipulatives, discovery learning, and the rest that it's almost impossible to talk about how those elements are *methods inside a curriculum* NOT *a curriculum in and of themselves*.

Content DOES dictate pedagogy. US Ed schools know and teach too little content to understand that.

SteveH said...

"I don't think it favors the top end student more than the low."

I disagree. Singapore Math might stick with a subject to completion, but that doesn't ensure mastery. The kids being left in the wake won't be the top end kids. They will be at the low end. This might be an improvement over EM, but it doesn't solve the underlying problem.

" following at the right pacing would be a lot better for the lower end students than what we do now."

What is the right pacing for the low end students? Singapore Math surely sets a faster pace than anything seen at our EM school. It may not be "trust the spiral" anymore, but it may turn into "trust the pacing".

"Content DOES dictate pedagogy."

No. It reflects pedagogy. If the pedagogy doesn't change, the content begins to reflect the pedagogy. That's the potential danger here. Singapore Math will be gobbled up and transformed just like understanding and critical thinking were gobbled up.

Anonymous said...

"...Singapore Math sticks with a subject to mastery, so following at the right pacing would be a lot better for the lower end students than what we do now."

What about students who take extra time to understand a concept? Singapore really doesn't have a lot of practice for each new concept introduced.

Anonymous said...

There isn't really any such thing as "Singapore Math" that I know of. There are different curricula from Singapore. Maybe one of them moves more slowly and another more quickly. Maybe the newer one has more of the inquiry and discovery than the original. There are different supplementary books from Singapore. There are different trainers that train teachers in "Singapore Math" in different ways. Of course it will get transformed. Even the math in Singapore is getting transformed.

Gina said...

I somekind agree with SteveH. I think the best education will help not any kind of education.

Anonymous said...

I think a good teacher helps. I think teaching one child rather than a classroom full of them helps. I think tailoring to the student helps.

The Primary Mathematics (Singapore Math) worked well with my son, but I had to add other things here and there as needed. How can any one curriculum be the end all and be all when you have such a wide variety of students and abilities? The problem is when any curriculum says "trust the curriculum" and makes grandiose promises and does not allow for supplementation or innovation. No where did I ever get the impression when using the Primary Mathematics that it was intended to be the solution to all possible math education issues in and of and by itself. In fact, the textbook is more like an activity book. It does not say everything. I could not have just used the textbook and that is it, the student is supposed to master math from just it. The textbook is more something to refresh a student's memory. To go over what was taught. I had to add more, flesh it out. For me, it was sufficient because I knew math already. Enough, anyway. It was enough guidance, without all kinds of teacher training, and I could come up with sufficient ways to flesh it out. I did have the advantage of liking math and not being afraid of it. I learned from it myself while using it to teach with. But not from being told how to teach anything, rather from doing the problems myself and seeing what was intended from my adult perspective. Enough to add when needed. From the variety of reports in the media, there are all kinds of ways the teacher fleshes it out. Which may be good, because there are all kinds of needs out there. At least it was a good base to flesh out. I did not spend a whole lesson on a single number looking at it in all different ways with smartboard and all, and my kid did fine. But I had an advatage, I could tailor to the student. It was easy to tailor to the student. All the other stuff I tried was not.

How can "Singapore Math" or any one curriculum "ensure mastery". And what is mastery? To be able to go on? To do all problems at one level without ever making a mistake? My kids got most of the problems right in the textbook. Not all. So if not, I added some like the ones they did not get right. Then I used some supplements, such as Challenging Word Problems, and they needed help with those. But we did not do that particular type of word problem they missed over and over again, just went on to the next, which maybe the got and maybe they did not. So they did not master all of Challenging Word Problems. Which is good. Otherwise they would have been bored to tears. I suppose mastery means just to be able to do all four operations on whole numbers and fractions and decimals and percent? My son did calculus at the community college while in high school, and he never got mastery, even in his own estimation, they skipped this and that, touched on this and that, but he went on to be a successful. Engineering major at college. He learned enough to apply it. Perhaps I have answered my own question. Mastery may be learning enough to be able to apply the math to new situations. The problem with all the other math we tried was that there were no new situations, no problems that you were not told exactly how to solve first. They were all so incredibly boring that even my eyed glazed over. That is what was so cool about the Primary Mathematics. It did not bore to tears with do this over and over again the exact same way. But even now, it seems like US teachers want to reduce the Singapore Math to that type of thing, with the focus now on bar models and making students follow specific steps in using them.