- Do you know which country ranks first in Math scores?
- US? Japan? Korea?
- No, it’s Singapore!
This is the conclusion of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an economic think tank that outlined its findings in a new report ranking countries’ school systems based on students’ math and science test scores.
PISA result 2015: Singapore students swept the board
According to the latest result of Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) – a triennial international survey that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students – Singapore came in first place in all the Pisa test subjects ahead of school systems across Asia, Europe, Australasia and North and South America.
Here is the result of the latest Pisa 2015, where Singapore finished top in all 3 subjects:
OECD education director Andreas Schleicher said Singapore was “not only doing well, but getting further ahead”.
Not surprisingly, Singapore has long sat atop the list of the world’s best mathematics and science programs. Since the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) started ranking countries’ competitiveness in math literacy in 1995, Singapore has been consistently at the top.
So, why is Singapore so successful in education, especially in Math and Science?
Behind the success
Singapore has invested heavily in its education system. Maths and science are core subjects in Singapore, taught throughout primary and secondary education. This island of the lion has become a “laboratory of maths teaching” by incorporating established international research into a highly effective teaching approach. With its emphasis on teaching pupils to solve problems, Singapore Maths’s pedagogical approach has become the envy of the world and is being used in thousands of schools across the United States. Here are some secrets to why Singapore Math is catching on in American schools:
#1 Firm foundation, deep mastery
“Mathematics in Singapore is not about knowing everything. It’s about thinking like a mathematician”, said Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD’s education assessment program.
Supporters of Singapore math credit the Singaporean methods of instruction and curriculum for its students’ success. The country’s Ministry of Education created the Singaporean curriculum, which generally focuses on fewer topics but in greater depth. While traditional math teachers use many concepts over the course of a year at a relatively quick speed, Singapore math focuses on children learning and 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’s curriculum is more stripped down at the primary level than in many western countries, covering fewer topics but doing so in far greater depth. Under this mastery approach, students learn a specific concept before moving on to more complex ideas in a rigidly linear progression.
#2. Visual learning
One of the defining features of Singapore Math is visualization. Many traditional Math teaching methods use a concrete-abstract approach. But Singapore, on the other hand, introduces a middle step called the “pictorial” phase — a bridge between concrete and abstract.
‘The concrete, pictorial, and abstract (CPA) method, based on the work of American psychologist Jerome Bruner, underscores real-world application of math: ideas are broken down into small steps, using real-life objects such as cubes and beads to illustrate a point, before moving on to drawings and then move on to abstract equations. Don Le, Everest Education co-founder, shared “CPA helps students to develop a deeper understanding of math that goes beyond simple calculation. It allows students to understand “why” math is the way that it is and not just “how.”
Students also learn to use bar model drawing to solve those word problems: 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. This visual approach helps drive Singapore Math’s success.
Besides, Singaporean teachers let students play many fun and exciting games to motivate them to constantly practice and reinforce their knowledge. This deepens their understanding of math concepts and ignites their love for math.
#3. Problem solving focus
Singapore Math “focuses on mathematical problem solving and emphasizes conceptual understanding, skills proficiency, learning of process skills, metacognition and the development of a positive attitude towards mathematics”.
Word problems are often where students struggle the most when being tested on difficult math concepts, but Singapore students routinely tackle them with ease. This is because instead of focusing on the concrete meaning of the words within the problems, Singapore students turn the words into pictorial models that “transform words into recognizable pictures for young minds.”
“Singaporean students are exposed to higher‐level, multi‐step word problems sooner in their studies than U.S. students, and proficiency in solving these complex problems is a key factor in why they have fared so well on international mathematics assessments,” said Bill Jackson, a math teacher in Scarsdale Public Schools in an article for The Daily Riff. “Singapore’s model drawing approach helps children to get past the words by visualizing and illustrating word problems with simple diagrams. And as children become better and more confident problem solvers, they become more interested in mathematics.”
#4. Layered strategies
The strategies taught in Singapore Math are layered upon one another. One skill set is a foundation for future lessons “like LEGO bricks carefully situated next to the other.” This differs from the typical approach in the U.S., which follows a “spiral” — where the material is revisited over the course of months or years. For example, students need prior knowledge of bonding in order to be successful at strategies they will learn later on (like vertical addition).
“The sequence of topics in Singapore Math has been carefully constructed based upon child development theory,” says Jeffrey Thomas, president of Singapore Math Inc., the primary producer of Singapore Math products for the U.S. market. “The means to mastery is problem solving, and the beauty of the approach is that the majority of students are well prepared to tackle increasingly difficult topics, such as fractions and ratios, when they are introduced in the third through fifth grades. Those students are also typically ready for middle school algebra and geometry.”
#5. Growth mindset
Singapore’s Ministry of Education heavily believes in “research-proven pedagogical approaches that lead to lasting learning beyond the test,” says KQED News.
One of these pedagogical approaches is helping students obtain a growth mindset to help them persevere, especially when confronted with the difficult material associated with advanced math.
A growth mindset, as defined and popularized by Carol Dweck, is the idea that intelligence is not a set of fixed traits but rather something that can be developed and improved through hard work and education.
Experts say students are more likely to succeed in difficult subjects like math when they ditch the feeling that they’re simply not good at it and replace it with the feeling that they can ultimately succeed if they keep trying. The support of this mindset is speculated to be one reason why Singapore students are continually able to succeed.
In short, Singapore Math has been proven to encourage perseverance and naturally gives students confidence as they become equipped to solve problems using many different tools. It is about drawing connections, supporting the thinking process, and instilling comprehensive understanding. In Vietnam, Everest Education is the only significant enrichment learning center that follows the Singapore Math methodology. By applying Singapore Math methods, students can easily get the how and why of foundational math, helping them build a strong foundation of knowledge and skills, with the goal of preparing them for more advanced topics. Additionally, all Math lessons at Everest Education are taught in English, preparing students academically and mentally for international education in the future.