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Singapore math in action

When I mentioned the term “Singapore Math” to my new colleagues as I studied in the small country of Singapore recently, they laughed! They simply call what they do every day “maths.”

During my time as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program recipient, I observed in three different elementary schools that each serve different socio-economic status families. My focus was primarily on the lower grades but I was also able to observe upper elementary classrooms. I noticed much consistency in classroom instruction. This was not surprising since all teachers are trained through one university in Singapore.

The National Institute of Education diligently works to prepare all teachers to go into the field as competent, capable educators. In addition to my observations, I was able to interview teachers, attend staff meetings and professional development, and learn a lot through informal talks with Singaporean educators.

During my observations, I witnessed instruction with number bonds. This is very common in maths instruction in Singapore.

A whole number is broken into two smaller parts. This significantly helps students visualize part-part-whole and understand number stories, leading them into a stronger foundation with addition and subtraction.

The concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA) method of teaching is common in Singaporean schools. Teachers begin instruction with manipulatives the students can physically touch and maneuver. They draw pictures and look at pictures to deepen their understanding of a concept. After exposure to concrete and pictorial methods of teaching, students tend to be more ready to take on the abstract part of math. For example, if a teacher is introducing addition with young students, he or she may give them cubes. With the cubes, the students could act out number stories. “Put two cubes with three more cubes. How many cubes do you have all together?” Students would physically move the cubes as the teacher talks. After this, students may draw pictures of two squares and then three more squares to determine how many they have. The final stage would be completion of the equation 2+3=5.

Teachers use the “I do, we do, you do” method of instruction. When introducing a mathematics standard, teachers model the equation while students watch and listen. Next, the teacher and students work out an equation together while talking through the steps. The final stage is independent work for the students. It is a step-by-step process and something I observed very consistently while studying in Singapore.

Model drawing is another aspect of Singapore math I witnessed very regularly. Students must think analytically as they transition to more abstract equations. Model drawing is powerful and can help students better understand word problems. Students read the entire problem. They rewrite the question in a sentence form with a space for the answer. Students then determine who and/or what is involved in the problem. They draw unit bars and are expected to be very neat as they do so. Students adjust the unit bars and fill in the question mark. They compute and solve the problem and then write in the answer. Students need to decide if the answer makes sense and be able to explain their thinking.

Expectations are high, students are expected to be able to explain their rationale for solving problems the way they chose, and work should be neat.

There were students who struggled with maths during my observations. There is a remediation plan in place for children who have difficulty with mathematics to provide support for them to better understand the subject.

There are other aspects of Singapore math that contribute to their success but the areas I’ve mentioned are what I saw firsthand and teachers reiterated during our interviews consistently.

One of my favorite aspects of Singapore math is the fact that children need to understand they why of solving equations and not simply the how. They should be able to explain their thoughts processes how they determined a solution to a problem.

Singapore math is not a program. It is simply best practices. Children need to comprehend what they do in math as they do in reading. They learn to explain their thought processes. Children also learn there can be more than one way to solve a math equation. Thinking critically and problem solving are two key characteristics students need to be successful and Singapore math can enhance both. There are schools in North Carolina implementing Singapore math very well and showing evidence of success.

Singapore Math + North Carolina = Success


Andi Webb

Andi Webb is a teacher and mathematics coach at Alderman Road Elementary in Fayetteville. She is National Board Certified and is currently pursuing her Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership through East Carolina University. She is a Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers grant recipient through Burroughs Wellcome Fund.