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How Singapore Math Improved Scores at a U.S. School

Editor's Note: When her school showed declining math scores, Andi Webb, math coach at Alderman Road Elementary School in Fayetteville, NC, decided to implement Singapore math strategies to help students improve their performance. Here's how she did it.

By guest blogger Andi Webb

Editor's Note: Singapore has gained international recognition for its success on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which compare the academic performance of countries around the world. Singapore is leading the world academically in every subject area, and many educators are interested in learning the secret behind Singapore's success.

Implementing Singapore Math

singapore_students.pngI became interested in Singapore math when my own elementary school's end-of-grade math test scores declined by 10 percent for grades 3, 4, and 5 in the 2013-2014 school year. Through Burroughs Wellcome Fund, I received a Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers to implement Singapore math within our school over the course of five years. Through the award, I serve as the mathematics coach for my school and, together with my principal, selected colleagues to serve as our school's math team. During the first year of the award, we attended the National Conference on Singapore Math through Staff Development for Educators (SDE). We trained our staff through ongoing professional development and focused the first year on grades kindergarten through third. In the second year, we increased our team and focused on grades four and five at the school. I worked closely with SDE to better understand Singapore math strategies and which instructional materials would be most beneficial for our school.

After one year of Singapore math implementation, we gained back the 10-percent decline. And after the second year of implementation, student scores increased by an additional 4 percent. We are now in the midst of the third year of school-wide implementation, and we are eager to see continued improvement. Early results show that students are understanding and applying mathematics more consistently. The best part is they seem to be enjoying math more.

Learning Firsthand in Singapore

During my school's second year of Singapore math implementation, I received a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program fellowship to conduct research in Singapore through observations, interviews, and classes in partnership with the Ministry of Education through the Academy of Singapore Teachers. My goal was to see firsthand what Singapore is doing so successfully.

Ironically, upon arrival, I learned that many of educators in Singapore had never actually heard of what is so widely known around the world as "Singapore math." They simply know what they do as "maths." During a staff meeting, a school principal asked me to tell everyone about Singapore math. The teachers laughed and laughed! 

My research focused solely on elementary mathematics. If you ask any educator in Singapore, you will likely hear that one of their most successful strategies is "CPA," or the concrete-pictorial-abstract approach to teaching. First, students use manipulatives (such as blocks) for hands-on learning to study a new mathematics standard. They then draw or use pictures to deepen their understanding of that standard. The final stage, the most difficult, is abstract. This is when students complete an algorithm. For example, if a first grader needs to solve 10 + 5 = ?, they could use 10 counters—small objects or symbols that they can physically count or move around to help them understand the problem—and then add 5 more for a total of 15 counters. Some students may not need to use counters but do need to draw pictures.

OOOOOOOOOO     +    OOOOO     =      15

If a student does not need manipulatives or pictures, they can simply solve 10 + 5 = 15.

Throughout my observations, I saw the "I do, we do, you do" method consistently. Teachers model how to solve a mathematics problem or equation. The teacher and students then solve an equation together. Finally, students solve an equation on their own.

number bonds.pngNumber bonds and ten frames are two examples of consistent aspects of Singapore math. Students explain their thinking and need to be able to justify their mathematic solutions. Number bonds help students understand that two parts make a whole. This builds a strong foundational understanding for addition and subtraction in the lower grades, particularly with missing addends in an equation such as 9 + ___ = 22. If students do not have a strong understanding that two parts make a whole, their answer will often be 31 (9 + 22) instead of 13 (9 + ? = 22). 

The Ministry of Education in Singapore has streamlined the country's educational practices and successfully implemented their educational vision through consistent strategies and educators who are all trained at the prestigious National Institute of Education.

Lesson Learned

ten_frames.png

During my time in Singapore, I was able to observe mathematics instruction firsthand and interview teachers. This experience allowed me to better implement Singapore math when I returned home. In Singapore, I researched and discussed the approaches they have found most effective in helping children gain a strong foundation in math. Over and over, teachers said CPA was their most effective strategy, which together with "I do, we do, and you do" method, are lessons I brought back to my school. I had a mentor through the National Institute of Education (NIE) with whom I collaborated frequently and was able to stay in contact well after my fellowship ended.

I still have much to learn from the intriguing nation and I look forward to continuing this journey and benefiting my school and students at the same time.

Connect with Andi and Heather on Twitter. 

Images by and used with permission of the author. Top photo is of Singaporean students; middle photo shows an example of number bonds; and the last photo demonstrates ten frames. 

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