In the early 1980s, Singapore developed its own mathematics curriculum in order to overcome low math test scores, which officials attributed to inferior curricula that had been developed in other countries. This new curriculum quickly proved itself an effective method of learning mathematics in that country. In fact, within 15 years Singapore’s elementary students were producing some of the top math scores in the world. Since then, the curriculum and methods have become popular in many public and charter schools in the United States as well as in other countries. Many homeschooling parents also prefer Singapore math because it presents simple problem-solving techniques that work across many types of problems.
The Three Stages of Learning
This math curriculum was developed after the work of Jerome Bruner, an American Psychologist who practiced in the 1960s. Jerome Bruner discovered that people tend to learn in stages. The first step is handling physical objects. Second is the transition to pictures that represent the physical objects. Finally, symbols replace the pictures to represent the objects. Singapore math curriculum uses these three steps to teach the mathematical concepts.
- Step One – In the physical or concrete stage, students learn to count, add, and subtract with objects such as chips or pebbles by lining the objects into rows.
- Step Two – In the picture phase, students replace the chips or pebbles of the physical stage with bars or diagrams drawn to represent the lines of concrete items.
- Step Three – Students begin solving math problems with numbers and symbols. By this time, the student has mastered the mathematical concepts of addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, and fractions, making the transition to higher math concepts simple and painless.
The Model-Drawing Technique
Step two of this math program has been called the most important of the three. Most people refer to this step as the model-drawing technique. This method involves using seven steps to create pictorial models and diagrams. Students represent problems by creating bar models that represent the problem and the concept. The steps of the model-drawing approach are:
- Read the problem carefully
- Identify who or what the problem involves
- Draw bars to represent the units
- Place the information on the bars
- Place the question mark
- Work out the calculations
- Answer with a complete sentence
Fewer Concepts = Deeper Understanding
The difference between this math curriculum and the traditional approach of United States math curricula is that students have fewer concepts and topics to learn, but this method allows teachers and students to explore each topic in detail. Common Core Standards in the US have been developed using a similar emphasis of skills. The developers of Common Core even gave a formal acknowledgement of the effectiveness of this curriculum, although students using it are typically ahead of Common Core Standards by a grade level or two.
Moving to the Forefront
More and more schools in the United States are teaching Singapore math concepts in recent years, especially as states adopt the Common Core Standards, while many publishers are offering the program as a curriculum. After looking through examples of this curriculum, many parents may recognize the techniques and sample questions from homework sheets their children have brought home. The efficacy of the curriculum has been proven repeatedly, and this is bringing it to the forefront of math programs in countries around the globe.
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