Singapore Math - A Model Method?

The Ministry of Education in Singapore is releasing a new book this month that summarizes the thinking behind the "Model Method" for teaching math. The approach has drawn interest from many corners of the world thanks to the country's top performance on international exams.

At a presentation Singapore's Embassy last night, education officials and researchers from the US and Singapore highlighted some key differences between the two systems.

Singapore's method is highly visual and explores fewer topics, but in greater depth. A 2005 study found that Singapore's math curriculum covered about 15 topics in an elementary school year; while Maryland's covered about 29. And while Singapore's text books have an average of 34 lessons with 15 pages of explanation for each, much bulkier texts in the US include an average of 157 lessons, with about four pages of explanation per lesson.

I also learned some more surprising differences:

Professional development is intensive for all teachers in Singapore, but about half the elementary teachers do not have university degrees. That is poised to change, though, as education standards for entering teachers are increasing, said Madame Low Khak Gek, the director of curriculum, planning and development with Singapore's Ministry of Education.

Starting salaries for math teachers match public sector accountants or engineers. "Teachers are treated as professionals," said Susan Sclafani, director of state services for the National Center for Education and the Economy.

Teacher evaluations are extremely comprehensive, and teachers who succeed receive bonuses worth one to three months of salary.

Mentoring programs for new teachers in Singapore last five years!

Grades one and two have smaller class sizes...only 30 students. Other grade levels tend to have 40 students or more.

Students are taught in English, not their native tongue. Many are bilingual or trilingual.

And another big difference -- Students there are more likely to take their studies very seriously. They understand "the quality of their preparation" will indicate "the quality of their lives," Sclafani said.

People often ask, how applicable is a successful model in Singapore to the more diverse and much larger US? I'm also interested in the practical challenges, given that textbooks in the US are written with state standards and assessments in mind, and matching them up with another country's approach might be tough.

What do you think?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  April 22, 2009; 2:23 PM ET
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Thank you for the posting, Michael.

It is interesting to see some of these differences. The pay issue is striking -- I wonder is government salaries are generally high across the board there or if teachers are especially recognized for their importance.

It would be interesting to know if the Singapore success is primarily only in math or does the student focus extend across the board so that Singapore performance is generally high across all areas. I would guess that is probably the case though non-math subjects are probably harder to compare across countries/cultures.

Posted by: fedbert | April 22, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

These differences are remarkable and have an obvious impact on students' performance. Kudos to Singapore for many of their well thought-out ideas. That said, it concerns me that we are looking to Singapore's method for answers before we look at our own students.

What do our students need?

Instead of concentrating on the development of a single overarching methodology to teach millions of students, what if we began with the premise that We All Learn Differently and instead design a system that allows students to learn in the different ways that leverage their own strengths and at their own pace?

Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson write about this in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. They predict that online learning and student-centric technologies will lead us in this effort.

"Students there are more likely to take their studies very seriously."

Kudos again to Singapore for instilling in their students an intrinsic motivation to learn. That, however, is far beyond the reach of schools and the Ministry of Education -- that is a responsibility that reaches to every corner of the community, and one that we in America have been remiss in upholding.

Our new president has made education reform a top priority; I remain hopeful that his far-reaching voice will encourage us to help the next generation prioritize education in order to get this country back on track.

Posted by: tracyhkim | April 22, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

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