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Singapore Math

Friday, July 19, 2013

How to love [Singapore] math, without liking it?

In reply to "how to motivate a contemporary teenager to love Maths? Three key words," posted in the "Singapore Math NOW" LinkedIn Group, my reply then was:

Make the most disliked subject in school inaccessible, expensive and illegal.

Here are three less-irreverent practical suggestions that have proved to be successful to a certain degree, in depicting mathematics, not as a terminal subject once it becomes optional, but as a subject worthy of study, which can help raise one's socio-economic status.

1. Reward students with money. 

A brochure to motivate citizens to
upgrade themselves mathematically.  
In Singapore, mature students (who are generally working adults who are given a second or third chance to get a formal education qualification) get a few hundred bucks from self-help groups, or from some workforce development agency, if they attain a certain level of mathematical proficiency.

In other words, Singapore tax payers reward them with cash if they do well in math, on top of their heavily subsidized part-time education. The country wants them to succeed even if they'd previously made a mess of their "mathematical life."

2. Brand the subject or topic.

In the early eighties, leveraging on some pedagogical insights from research done in mathematics education from countries, such as China, Russia, Japan, and the United States, Singapore had succeeded in extending the power and application of the strategy, "Draw a diagram" or "Draw a model," to solve a whole set of mathematics problems, which traditionally were mostly solved by analytical or algebraic means.

As a result, local math curriculum developers, headed by Dr. Kho and his team, had subliminally or subconsciously branded the "draw a diagram" strategy, by re-christening it, the "model method," or the "bar method," as it's commonly known locally.

Today, the Singapore model method is an integral part of the Singapore math curriculum, as it's being powerfully used as a visualization strategy to solve a number of challenging word problems at the elementary school level, which would normally require a formal algebraic knowledge to solve them.

3. Value math highly in society.

Numeracy is not an option.
Provide opportunities for those with math degrees to hold positions of power and influence in the country, who may act as role models. 

For instance, many key personnel in the Singapore civil service (e.g., members of Parliament, army heads, and school principals) and in the private sector (e.g., CEOs, pastors, and TV actors) have a strong mathematical background, or are quantitatively (and financially) literate. It's probably no surprise that Singapore has the world's highest percent of millionaires per capita, probably because of a significant number of its citizens and residents being blessed with an above-average financial quotient (FQ).  

On 6/9/11, I jokingly tweeted a new definition of "Singapore math":

@MathPlus: Singapore math: A term to describe the ambivalent governance of Singapore by a Prime Minister and a President, who are both math majors.

And, on 15/2/12, Republic of Math tweeted the following:

@republicofmath: Singapore president Tony Tan has applied math PhD. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has math degree http://t.co/0UHDpIuE via @JohnAllenPaulos

It's probably not a coincidence to attribute good governance and economic success in Singapore to applied quantitative literacy, partly because at the top management in both government and the private sector, we've in place key personnel who can think rationally and logically—not easily swayed by race or religion politics, and who would make unpopular decisions for the benefit of the country even at the risk of not being elected in the next election.

Math as a Servant 

Just like we can love our enemies, without liking them (if we yield ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit), so too can we learn to appreciate and love the most-disliked subject in school, without having quite a liking for it. Like money, we need to make math our servant, not our master—we can make math work for us, without being enslaved by it. 

© Yan Kow Cheong, July 18, 2013.