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Singapore Math Demystified!

CJ Westerberg, July 29, 2014 10:21 AM


Singapore Math:
Can It Help Solve Our Country's Math-phobia?

Editor's Note:  Due to the interest expressed over our previous posts about Singapore Math and the non-Singaporean-specific classic, "Why Our Kids Don't Get Math"  here, The Daily Riff is featuring an exclusive original four-part series by Bill Jackson, Math Helping Teacher, Scarsdale, NY Public Schools, one of the highest performing districts in the country.

We asked Bill to share his truly incredible (which is both humbling and exhilarating) global journey into math education from Singapore to Japan and back again to the United States in an original series for The Daily Riff.  His posts are becoming classics in the Singapore Math lexicon.  - C.J. Westerberg

How I Became Interested In Singapore Math
Part 1

By Bill Jackson

In 1997, I attended a series of workshops on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). That study compared math achievement in over 40 countries in grades 4, 8 and 12. Singapore and a handful of East Asian countries performed extremely well, much better than the United States, which had a mediocre performance. I was an 8th grade teacher at Public School No. 2 in Paterson, New Jersey at the time.

At the workshop we watched videotapes of mathematics classrooms from Japan, Germany and the U.S. The U.S. lesson looked very familiar. The teacher showed his students how to do a procedure and then they practiced while the teacher helped individual students. The Japanese lesson looked very different, however. The teacher began the lesson by posing a rich problem. Then the students solved the problem based on what they had learned previously and shared different solution methods. Important mathematical points of the lesson were brought out through class discussion of the various methods. The students looked very engaged and they even clapped for each other. After watching the video, I felt that my students were getting shortchanged and I became determined to learn how to teach like that Japanese teacher!

Making this change, however, would not be easy. The lessons in the heavy 600+ page textbook we were using did not begin with problem solving. In fact, the word problems were the last thing on the page and often times we were so busy practicing procedures that we didn't even get to them. I decided to teach my lessons backwards by posing one of the word problems at the bottom of the page and then asking the students to solve it, share and discuss their methods. I explained to my students what I was trying to accomplish and even showed them the TIMSS videotapes. I was amazed at how quickly they adjusted to the new methodology and how engaged they were. They were actually starting to like math. They even began to clap for each other after they presented their solutions!

I soon realized, however, that there was much more to good math teaching than merely imitating the steps of the Japanese lesson. I got involved in a math study group begun by our principal to study the TIMSS data, read books and articles, and explore how to improve mathematics instruction. This led in 1999 to a partnership with researchers from Teachers College and a Japanese school in Greenwich, CT to conduct lesson study, a process where groups of teachers plan, observe and discuss actual classroom lessons. I also traveled to Japan to observe mathematics classes and learn about the Japanese school system.

When I began working with the Japanese teachers, I soon realized three important reasons why they were such good math teachers:

(1) They had a high level of math content knowledge. In fact, I felt that their first grade teachers knew more about math than I did as an 8th grade teacher!

(2) They used thin, lightweight paperback textbooks that were much more focused and coherent than our heavy hard cover books.

 (3) They continually worked to improve their teaching throughout their careers by conducting lesson study.

We began conducting lesson study at our school but we found that it was difficult to develop engaging and focused lessons like the Japanese teachers taught because of our unfocused textbooks. This led us to the Primary Mathematics textbooks from Singapore. Like the Japanese textbooks they were thin and lightweight and addressed fewer topics per year with depth and coherence. They were also very kid friendly with simple cartoon drawings that highlighted important mathematical ideas. One of the things we liked the most about them was a very effective method to solve complex problems using pictorial diagrams called bar models.

In 2000, we decided to adopt Singapore's Primary Mathematics (Third Edition) textbooks in grades K-8. The books used British spellings and had strange foods like durians and rambutans, but these things did not impede students' understanding of the mathematics. Later we switched to the Primary Mathematics U.S. Edition, which used American English and included customary measures. For kindergarten we used Earlybird Kindergarten Mathematics and in grades 7 and 8 we used New Elementary Mathematics.

With the adoption of Singapore math textbooks combined with lesson study, math teaching began to improve at our school. But there were also challenges. We realized that in order to teach Singapore Math successfully we needed to improve our mathematical content knowledge so we invited knowledgeable others to conduct workshops for teachers. We also realized that our math content knowledge was improving just by teaching lessons from the textbooks and later found out that the textbooks were designed so teachers could acquire this knowledge since Singaporean elementary teachers are generally not math specialists. I also came out of the classroom to become the school's math facilitator. In small group meetings, we conducted lesson study, studied the textbooks, and solved problems together using bar models.

I'll never forget the time we were solving a difficult 6th grade problem with first grade teachers and one teacher jumped up a shouted excitedly, "I got it!"  She was so excited that she was finally getting it after not having a good mathematics learning experience herself as a child. The lesson study process was instrumental in allowing us to study the materials together and discuss how to craft good lessons.

In 2008, I left the Paterson school district and was hired by Scarsdale Public Schools as one of three district wide Math Helping Teachers to help facilitate the adoption of Singapore Math. Scarsdale is using the Primary Mathematics Standards Edition textbooks. It is interesting to me that Scarsdale, one of highest performing and most innovative school districts in the country, has adopted Singapore Math.  Before making the decision, they spent time researching and piloting the program. They concluded that even though their students were doing well already in comparison to most students nationwide, they needed to continually improve mathematics instruction. This was a very wise decision in my opinion and the implementation has been very successful. Teachers, students and parents are enthusiastic about the program and many groups of teachers have also conducted lesson study. One Scarsdale fifth grade teacher said, "Primary Mathematics has given me the opportunity to love teaching math. In turn, my students love math and impress me everyday as they become incredible mathematicians."

That's all for now. In future posts I will discuss Singapore Math in more detail, including the philosophy of the program, problem solving methods, and tips for successful implementation.

Bill Jackson
Math Helping Teacher
Scarsdale Public Schools

Originally Published by The Daily Riff 3/19/10

Part 2:  Can Solving Problems Unravel Our Fear Of Math?
               The Singapore Math Program philosophy - Problem-based, concrete-pictorial-   abstract approach

Part 3:  Singapore Math:  Is this the most Visual Math?  The Signature Bar Modeling Method

Part 4:     How To Bring Singapore Math to Your School

Also:  Check out Bill Jackson's recent Travel Journal To Singapore -
Five part series

For more on Jackson's Travel Journal to Japan:
Day 1 & 2: Link - "What American Teachers Can Learn From Japan"
Day 3 & 4: Link Here - "A More Global Perspective On Teacher Assessment and Development"
Day 5:  Link Here - Developing Creative Talents, Not Just Academic Skills
Day 6: Link Here - "Less Is More"
Day 7 & 8 - Part 1: Link Here - "Teaching For Students. Sounds Obvious. Not."
Day 7 & 8 - Part 2: Link Here - "Teachers Walking The Talk"

Related post:
Why Other Countries Do Better in Math


  • Dee

    Bill, I applaud your efforts tremendously! I am a big fan of Singapore math having lived in Singapore in the late 80's and early 90's (pre-child).

    My daughter was in private school in CT from 5-10th grade, and she did well until 8th grade where she had a terrible math teacher for algebra I. She is a visual learner, and got a D that year. I asked the teacher why she felt my daughter wasn't doing well (I knew the reason: the teacher could not teach! everyone was failing, and the teacher was tenured; enough said). I brought in her math grades from previous years,and her ERB scores (she was in the 92%-ile in math which was great for her considering her strength is in language arts - she was always in the 99th%-ile). She was in John Hopkins CTY for LA, but missed math because she got a 93 on the qualifying test. I brought this to the teacher's attention that she had A's up to 8th grade, and the teacher insisted she come for extra help. It didn't work, because the teacher would only repeat what she taught in class that day. My daughter was so frustrated, as she just couldn't figure out what formula to apply when questions on various topics were on the test. if she had a series of questions all related to the same topic, she was fine. Eighth grade truly traumatized her.

    When she got to 9th grade, she studied geometry and trigonometry with a great teacher who gave her a lot of confidence. She went up to an A-, because the teacher felt if the kids worked hard, and they didn't understand the math, it was "his" fault, not theirs. He was a huge proponent of Singapore math, and he brought it to the attention of the math dept head and head of the upper school. They were close-minded about it and refused to listen. He left at the end of that year, and we were sorry to see him go.

    Sophomore year my daughter had Alg II with the head of the math dept (who felt "English" was a waste of kid's time since after all, we speak it so why would we have to take 4 yrs of it? scary to hear that isn't it?). She was the one instrumental, we all believe, in having the 9th grade Singapore math proponent leave the school. She told the students that their grades weren't "real" if they did well in his class, since he used unorthodox teaching methods! My daughter got a C first quarter of Alg II, and I thought it was because she was never taught Alg I properly in 8th grade. She didn't bother to go for extra help as she knew the results would be the same. On her own, my daughter studied from a book on how to shortcut math problems for the SAT (written by asian students who studied singapore math), and the first time she used it on a test, the teacher went ballistic. "Who is teaching you to do math this way? It is wrong!" But she couldn't mark my daughter wrong, since she got the RIGHT answers. She got a B+ on the test! By end of year, my daughter got a B+ for the whole year using this method on her own. Most of the kids had live-in or on-call tutors, but my daughter followed this short cut method and got through. The teacher still insists till this day my daughter must have had a tutor!

    Unfortunately, we could no longer afford the school, and now my daughter is a junior in a public school in CT. The teacher is awful. She's mean, and she teaches the class as those it is an honors class (she teaches pre-calc, honors pre-calc and AP calc). She gives help after school, but in a group and won't address individualized questions. My daughter gets some of the problems in class, but again when they are all mixed up, she can't figure out the formula to use. She has a D right now, and she is so upset. The teacher is also demeaning telling them she doesn't know why they can't get it, and if that is the case, they shouldn't be in her class. My daughter is trying her best to fulfill the math requirement and take the most rigorous courses so she can get into a good college, but with teachers like this, it makes it impossible. My daughter's self-esteem is shot.

    We were back in Singapore, august 2011, as my daughter worked as the only young journalist (she was 15) and photographer for the first Youth Olympic Games. While we were there, I asked one of the teachers about buying some Singapore math books to use, since my daughter was struggling so much. She gave me the name of them and the bookstore to buy them in, but I didn't have time to go there since the Olympics occupied so much time.

    I am wondering if a) you do private tutoring b) if a student learns singapore math, can he/she use it to do math in the public or private schools in america that don't use it c) are there books for pre-calc and algebra I & II or do you need to start from the basics (primary level) in order to understand singapore high school math?

    I recently saw a clip on youtube where a group of 3rd graders were doing singapore math in one of the states, and the kids were already doing algebra, and they loved doing math!

    Any help would be appreciated, as my daughter's self-confidencehas fallen tremendously. It is difficult enough switching schools in junior year, but she feels so demeaned not being able to "get" math.

  • rocco

    This is simply Investigations math...we used it in Kalamazoo, then the powers that be sold out to Scott Foresman math. (I still use Investigations in my class though...shhhhh.) Richer learning takes place, multiple solutions occur, allows all children to create their own answer.

  • Mike

    How does the Singapore Math primary program compare to the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Math in Focus program, which is supposed to be based on Singapore Math?

  • Bill Jackson

    There are several math textbooks used in Singapore, among them one of the most popular is a series called My Pals Are Here. The U.S. based Houghton-Mifflin Company partnered with Marshall Cavendish, the Singaporean publisher both of My Pals and Primary Mathematics, to develop Math In Focus, which is an Americanized version of My Pals. One difference is that My Pals has two thin paperback books per grade while Math In Focus has two larger hardcover books. I have compared certain grade levels of each but I have not used Math In Focus and do not feel that I am qualified to really comment on the differences. You can purchase My Pals Are Here on Amazon or from web sites in Singapore and compare them for yourself.

    In Scarsdale, we use Primary Mathematics Standards Edition (www.singaporemath.com). Primary Mathematics is the only textbook series that was developed by the Singapore Ministry of Education. The Curriculum and Development Institute of Singapore launched the Primary Mathematics project in 1982, headed up by Dr. Kho Tek Hong who is considered the father of the Singapore bar model method. It was subsequently revised in 1993 and 1995. This program was extensively reviewed and tested in classrooms. In fact, last summer in Singapore I met one of the teachers who was from the original pilot and he told me about the rigorous work that went into testing and revising the original. The result was a very strong math program that still holds up. (Math is math, right?) Primary Mathematics used to be the only textbook used in Singapore but it was gradually phased out beginning in 2001 because the Singapore Ministry of Education got out of the textbook business and opened it to the private market. The Primary Mathematics U.S. Edition was developed in 2003 for U.S. classrooms. The only change from the original was that it contains American English and U.S. Customary Measures. In 2008 the Primary Mathematics Standards Edition was developed for the California Standards. We use this edition in Scarsdale as it is an updated version of Primary Mathematics and has a few things that are common in U.S. standards but not in Singapore. It has proven to be very successful. I hope this is helpful.

  • Robyne Camp

    Bill Jackson is great. He gave me lots of help when I tried to get Singapore math introduced into my school district, a neighboring district in Westchester. I have not yet succeeded, but it was not for want of help from Bill.

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