Parents in the United States often hear (and stress about) how students in other countries perform better than our children in math and science. Many cutting edge schools are implementing an approach to teaching elementary math that is common practice in Singapore.
Singapore math is a teaching method based on the national math curriculum used for kindergarten through sixth grade in Singapore. The primary steps in the Singapore model include: concrete, pictorial, and abstract. In the concrete step, students engage in hands-on learning experiences using concrete objects such as chips, dice, or paper clips. This is followed by drawing pictorial representations of mathematical concepts. Students then solve mathematical problems in an abstract way by using numbers and symbols.
Singapore math has become popular due to Singapore’s consistent top ranking on an international assessment of student math achievement called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Singapore ranked 3rd of the 31 countries administering the test in 4th and 8th grades, while the U.S. ranked 9th and 11th, respectively.
Supporters of Singapore math credit the Singaporean methods of instruction and curriculum for its students’ success. While American math instruction often relies on drilling and memorization of many skills each year, Singapore math focuses on children not just learning but also truly mastering a limited number of concepts each school year. The goal is for children to perform well because they understand the material on a deeper level; they are not just learning it for the test.
Singapore math requires children to understand how something works, like long division. But they’re also going to understand why long division works, not just the how but the why. It relies heavily on visualization, which is often neglected in the American classroom. In typical American math teaching, you use a concrete-abstract approach. Singapore, on the other hand, introduces a middle step between the concrete and abstract called the pictorial approach. It asks students and teachers to draw a diagram of the concepts going on.
Students also learn to use model drawing to solve those word problems that many of us remember fondly from elementary school. Instead of trying to picture the problem in their heads, then writing out the equation to solve it, students in Singapore math diagram the elements of the word problem. Model drawing is really exciting to many Americans because they’ve never seen anything like it. It gives American teachers a tool to help students decode those sticky word problems.