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Singapore Math

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Glance at US and Singapore Math Textbooks


Singapore triple firsts at three Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 1995, 1999 and 2003 seems to be the envy of mathematics educators around the world. However, in the 2007 TIMSS results, Singapore lost to Hong Kong in the grade-four category, and came third behind Chinese Taipei and South Korea in the grade-eight category. 

In spite of losing its first position at the last TIMSS, what is Singapore doing right that other [mostly, developing] countries may want to emulate this natural resources-poor nation-state when it comes to raising the mathematical proficiency of their student populations?

Even before the TIMSS ranking, developing countries that offered the Cambridge GCE O- and A-level examinations were keen to learn from the Singapore educational system, as Singapore has consistently outperformed all the other Commonwealth countries when it comes to academic performance.

In some regional mathematics contests like the Australian Mathematical Competitions (AMC), Singapore mathletes have been performing relatively well, winning a few gold medals every year, as compared to contestants from other Asian countries. Not to mention one particular year when a few Singapore mathletes had to retake the contest, because the AMC committee members didn't want to award too many gold medals to Singapore winners, because its gold tally that year was disproportionate to its size!

It’s no secret that Singapore students are skilled at spotting examination questions. This is one of the unwritten responsibilities of any Singapore teacher or tutor to help the students master that necessary evil. And it isn’t uncommon that many mathletes can even drill themselves to scoring well in regional contests and competitions. Singapore students may be likened to those credit-card hackers who seem to be always one step ahead of the security standards when it comes to spotting exam questions.

Even the SAT examinations have proven to be a breeze for many of our exam-smart A-level (high school) students, as they need the score to get entry to the local university–when that requirement was in force a few years back. The SAT score then formed 25 percent of the weightage in getting a place at the two highly-subsidized local universities, in addition to their A-level grades.

Since the TIMSS ranking, many countries–from developed nations like the US and Israel to developing ones like Malaysia and Korea–have shown keen interest in adopting Singapore textbooks. Let's have a quick comparison between Singapore and American textbooks, and how their teachers differ from each other.

Singaporeans: Mathematical success ∝ Effort + Teaching
Americans: Mathematical success ∝ Innate talents + Limitations

The top mathematicians and math educators are mostly in the US, and the worst ones  are probably in the US as well. Singapore teachers would probably fit in the middle.

Singapore may be the math envy of the US, based on its ranking at the TIMSS, but Singapore teachers long to be as creative as their US counterparts. 

American writers produce the best [creative, enrichment, and problem solving] math books; and Singaporean writers mostly plagiarize the best math books from around the world, be they from Russia, Hungary, Israel, Mainland China, United Kingdom, United States, and Australia, to name a few.

Singapore teachers are exam-oriented and work a few hundred hours more than their American counterparts.

Singapore textbooks differ from American textbooks in a number of ways:

Singapore math textbooks are about one-fifth the size of American textbooks for the same grade or level.

Singapore textbooks hardly ever give any references or bibliography, and don’t always have an index.

American textbooks are high in illustration but low in content–rich in form but poor in substance.

Singapore textbooks are shy of illustrations, as compared to numerous ones used in American textbooks.

Reviewers' names for a typical American textbook are all listed, as compared to the few, if any, ghost reviewers in a Singapore textbook: A few pages of reviewers versus one sole General Editor (or Consultant).

Academic credentials of Singapore authors, in particular the ones by the General Editor or Consultant, are always conspicuously given – to boost sales among titles-conscious parents.

Teacher’s and Student’s manuals, CD-ROM, Question Bank, Websites, and the like accompany American textbooks. Singapore teachers' resources are usually given free to adopting schools.

Singapore publishing houses hold expensive lunch or high-tea book launches at five-star hotels for teachers while their American counterparts promise cruises for decision makers of adopting schools or states. 

Singapore publishers give away grand pianos, [budget airlines?] air tickets, computer gadgets, [non-branded] watches, and the like to local schools which adopt their titles–all these donations are done discreetly, as schools and teachers aren't supposed to accept these "gifts of appreciation." Maybe, iPad may feature in one of their future gifts!

American textbooks contain questions that are full of real-life applications of concepts; Singapore textbooks contain questions that are mostly impractical and artificial (fictional) to practice basic mathematical concepts.

American textbooks offer even or odd answers, while Singapore textbooks provide almost all answers.

What appears as ‘critical or creative questions’ for Americans are routine questions (exercises) for Singaporeans.

The US math curriculum is decried to be a mile wide and an inch deep by partisan educators and politicians. The Singapore math syllabus covers quite a fair bit of content–even more so, as compared to other South Asian countries–but its content isn't as rigorous as those from Hong Kong, mainland China, and Japan.

Singapore textbooks are value-for-money titles. However, this is not so when these local titles are exported to the US, where third parties often profiteer from the sales. 

Copyrights seldom belong to Singapore authors, unlike their American counterparts who get to keep their intellectual rights.

Initially, Singapore had faithfully and blindly embraced the SAT system for two or three years, when the US was then questioning the reliability of the SAT score as a criterion to getting a place in the university. Fortunately, the SAT score is now optional for local entry college requirements, which had since translated to some loss of income for local publishers and SAT trainers.

Please share your own [often unspoken and unwritten] comparisons of US and Singapore textbooks to the rest of us.

© Yan Kow Cheong, April 10, 2010