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Taking a deep hard look at Singapore Mathematics

[ Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece by Mr. Frederick Koh at www.whitegroupmaths.com. ]

The “Made in Singapore” tag literally applies to me-born here, bred here, educated here. To a certain extent, I was blessed to have studied mathematics in this little country, as its curriculum was exceptionally rigorous and thorough. That said, is Singapore maths really that awesome and perfect? Absolutely not .In fact its pretty flawed. Being someone who “survived” this journey (which was generally manageable, but not quite pleasant at times), perhaps I might be in a better position to put things into perspective.

Mention Singapore Maths to educators around the world, and thoughts normally conjured up would be those of novel primary school textbooks and bar model solving methodologies unique to the Singaporean context. Or the impeccable Cambridge ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examination standards imported from the UK a long time ago. Marvelled from the outside, it is an incredible system which enables the learner to cultivate a high level of mathematical competency through various stages of carefully structured teaching programs. But there within resides serious problems. The extremely competitive nature of academic education here places a strong premium on getting stellar report cards and grades, so much so that a kid goes to school merely to learn how to excel in tests and advance to the next level, rather than learning to better oneself.

So while a typical Singaporean student is able to evaluate an integral efficiently or deftly reduce a system of linear equations, he is merely reproducing the operations taught to him in a mechanical fashion- put it simply, he does things without knowing why. Truth be told, most students behave in a similar manner ie they swallow what is taught wholesale without even attempting to digest the knowledge. Yet they can’t be blamed for being far less curious and inquisitive. The mainstream style of instruction utilised in Singapore maths heavily emphasizes memorisation and rote learning- very robotic strategies which have been proven to deliver consistently good results for many batches of students in national assessments. Couple it with the “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” mentality of the education authorities, this is what happens.

Another obscene culture deeply embedded within Singaporean maths education is that commonly called “question spotting”. It is subtly acknowledged (and if I may add, encouraged) within the local teaching community to set specific types of questions such that their essence can be easily recycled and referenced in test scripts year after year. Over a prolonged build-up period, with access to a collection of past year papers, it becomes reasonably easy for the student to predict the flavour of an upcoming maths exam and make revision plans accordingly. It is really all about being “exam smart”, nothing more. You don’t need genuine math ability to score a distinction here in the Lion City, period.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that major math syllabus reductions for both secondary schools and junior colleges (JCs) were introduced during recent years, most prominent of which was the installation of the simpler, far more hollow Higher 1/Higher 2 (aka H1/H2) maths courses in 2007 for the JCs. In comparison to the older C/Further maths syllabuses taught during my days, I reckon a cut of at least 40% was made; even so, this is a very conservative estimate. The graphic calculator was brought in on the grounds of revolutionising lessons given the dawn of the new IT age, but from my observations, it has become more of a liability rather than an advantage, because many kids are so reliant on it they can’t even graph basic functions by hand when I intentionally forbade use of the handheld gadget. Note that this is only one of many more embarrassing revelations which I shall not discuss here. So much for Singapore coming out tops in international maths proficiency rankings. Less lesson content, more high tech toys equals..……you fill in the blanks.

Ending this, allow me to ask you (the reader) a simple question-can you name an influential mathematician who hails from Singapore? If our maths is so damn great, why are you still scratching your head helplessly and unable to give a response?

Frederick Koh is a teacher residing in Singapore who specialises in teaching the A level maths curriculum. He has accumulated more than a decade of tutoring experience and loves to share his passion for mathematics on his personal site www.whitegroupmaths.com.

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  1. Having worked with a number of business people from Singapore the deficiencies in the math education process are far outweighed by the benefits. Same goes for the Japanese math education system. Based on TIMSS and other research”
    Forty Six percent (46%) of Singapore eighth graders scored in the top 10% of math students in the world. That means half of their students would rank as top-performing students in our schools.
    At least 75% of Singapore’s students placed among the top 25% of all eighth graders worldwide.
    Just 1% of Singapore students placed among the bottom 25% of all eighth graders around the world.
    Singapore is a reasonable benchmark for the US for a number of reasons including but not limited to:
    1 Their curricular materials (textbooks workbooks, teacher’s guides) are paperback, in English, inexpensive and available online at http://www.singaporemath.com. The Ministry of Education produces PC based math games that align with the curricular materials.
    2. Three decades ago the Singapore education system was sub par at best. Singapore is now ranked #1 in the world by TIMSS (International Math and Science Survey) and #2 by PISA.
    3. Singaporeans speak three different languages at home (Chinese, tagalog and English).
    4. The average class size in Singapore is 40 and the teachers, students and parents don’t whine about it because it has little or no impact on student learning.
    5. A Singapore sixth grade student is taught to solve math problems and learn math concepts that NAEP defines as advanced 8th grade level in the US.
    So whatever draw backs to the Singapore math education system exist and I’m sure there are many the net effect is far more positive than what’s going on in the US and as far as I can tell anywhere else in the world. The question I pose. If you had to replace the US math education system with an existing math education system already in use which one would you pick?

  2. @John S, the writer is putting across the fact that the actual picture in Singapore isn’t as rosy as others (especially the Americans) deem it to be, and is highlighting what he feels is lacking within the system from an insider’s pov. Whether the deficiencies are overwhelmed by the benefits isn’t the main point of discussion because we all know for one that American maths does pale in comparison to its Singaporean counterpart based on the numerous research results ; its about lifting the veil of assumed perfection and examining its internal faults. For that, he articulated pretty well I must say.

    I don’t think your question posed can be answered, simply because its a tad too naive to even consider simply replacing a system in its entirety. I believe its more about learning from your peers and modifying things to adapt to the new challenges and demands.

  3. Thank you for this insightful piece. I also teach in sg and it sure resonates with me deeply. Don.

  4. I have heard this point of view from other Singaporeans as well. It’s easy for me, as an American teacher, to think, “I wish I could have that problem!”

    But really, I don’t wish that. Much as I want American students to be competent at basic calculation, I don’t want to trade their ignorance for merely rote performance.

    That is why, when I teach with the Singapore textbooks — which seem to me a huge improvement over American books — I expect my students to be able to explain everything they do. Just getting an answer is not enough. They must be able to tell how they know it is true. In essence, they must give informal proofs for almost every solution.

    Don’t teachers in Singapore require that?

    Your description of “question spotting” sounds very much like most of the SAT/ACT preparation materials I see. It’s a basic survival skill for high-stakes testing, but should not be considered a substitute for actually learning the mathematics. A student should master both. Ideally, just mastering the math would be enough, but as long as students must take high-pressure tests, being “exam smart” is also important.

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