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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


Anonymous said...

KC, how many math texts did you sample of both types? :) brenda

ben@math-chinese-tutor.com said...

The "triple first" may not have done anything good for Singapore. We are so proud of "Singapore Math" that we refuse to recognise the big gap between Primary Math and Secondary Math. Math methods we teach our Primary 6 students are not at all applicable when they go to Secondary schools.

Singapore Math said...

Hi Benda

I've compared our old and present local primary (elementary) and secondary (middle) school textbooks with a dozen American textbooks (mostly funded by the NSF) I'd find from both the National Institute of Education (NIE) and National University of Singapore (NUS) libraries, including some titles I found in bookstores like Borders and Kinokuniya.

At the elementary grade, you may want to compare the currently used math series in Singapore, 'My Pals Are Here' with its US edition, 'Math in Focus: The Singapore Approach' to get an idea of the differences between textbooks from both countries.

On the whole, it looks like grade 5 of US Math is equivalent to our primary 4 of Singapore Math, which means American students of the same age seem to be one level lower than their Singaporean peers mathematically. A culture of challenge (an obsession to do challenging word problems to score well in exam) has permeated the Singapore society, which has also let thousands of our own students down, because schools constantly set those nonroutine questions to stream the allegedly good students from the average ones.


Singapore Math said...

Hi Ben

Most of our politically incorrect math educators and lecturers in Singapore would agree with you: our triple firsts in TIMSS have covered up many of the pedagogical and conceptual problems faced by tens of thousands of maths teachers and tutors on how to bridge the gap between uppper primary and secondary maths students.

We've used our performance at the TIMSS to promote our brand of Singapore Math overseas, without acknowledging the weaknesses (or abuses) of, say, the model method in solving many challenging word problems, which were traditionally set in secondary schools, where algebra was the preferred method of solution.

Unless the MOE has the humility to admit that not everything about Singapore Math is as mathematically healthy or rosy as the mass media would want us to believe, we'll just be deluding ourselves if we claim that our local Maths holds the key to producing students with a good mathematical foundation.


Singapore Math said...

Allow me to clarify on two points I made earlier in this post. I wrote that Singapore publishing houses held expensive lunch or high-tea book launches at five-star hotels for teachers while their American counterparts promised cruises for decision makers of adopting schools or states.

And I also mentioned that Singapore publishers donated grand pianos, air tickets [maybe from budget airlines, if these practices are still condoned today?], computer gizmos, [non-branded] watches, and the like to local schools. And I joked that maybe iPad may be a future possible gift!

Let me stress that those two comparisons I made in no way suggest that any current publishers in Singapore practice them today. I'm just stating what I read and heard when I was still a full-time school teacher in the late nineties.

It's an open secret in academic circles then for us to hear of such "gifts of appreciation," but again that was a decade ago; of course, it'd be unfair to say that those things continue to be practiced in 2010. First, I do not want to speculate whether these things still operate today, because I'm simply not in the slightest investigative position to verify how publishers deal with schools, unless I've second-hand news from school teachers, tutors, and parents that such practices are still being condoned.

Next, I recall reading about those things in some local papers or periodicals, or from some public forum comments and on some online sites, but again that was years back - some one decade ago. I wish I'd quote the sources and references, but I'm afraid I didn't keep the documents to substantiate those claims of yesteryear.

Hope I've clarified any wrong perception about Singapore educational publishers.

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