Why Singapore Math
A few comments from a mathematician.
When I teach, at any level, the key question is always why?
I started using Singapore Math in professional development courses in 2000 as a vehicle to connect teacher knowledge of mathematical content with elementary and middle school student work. The biggest challenge we face in improving K-8 mathematics instruction is teacher content knowledge of the subject. We would never be satisfied if our third grade teachers read at the sixth grade level. But we have accepted that many operate mathematically at the sixth grade level. This is not meant to be a criticism of teachers; but rather of some of our teacher training programs and state departments that license teachers. Many elementary school teachers will readily admit that they don’t feel comfortable with mathematics. I believe that teacher content knowledge is critical and see the Singapore Math books as a vehicle for improving it. I also suspect that it’s the best elementary textbook series around.
How do you teach a mathematical subject when you aren’t proficient in it? You focus on rules, procedures and memorization; or on manipulatives, games and activities that you can’t readily connect to concepts. (I should note that none of these things are bad if done appropriately.) When I work with teachers or students, the overriding point that I want to get across is the importance of understanding whatever mathematics you are doing. When you resort to teaching or learning by memorization only, nothing is being taught or learned. The focus on understanding is implicit in the Singapore Math books.
In the current Math Wars, we often see two positions about elementary mathematics; reform and traditional. Many see these positions as diametrically opposed; traditional focuses on basic skills; while reform emphasizes conceptual understanding. But a student who understands place value should have no difficulty multiplying two 2 digits numbers. I want students to memorize their times tables; but to do the memorization with understanding. Then when they can’t remember what 6 x 8 equals; they might think: “I know that 5 x 8 = 40. So one more 8 is 48.” Or they might think: “I know that 3 x 8 = 24. To get 6 x 8, I need to double that result.” These are just two of the many areas where basic skills and conceptual understanding support each other.
The Singapore books do an excellent job of teaching for understanding and emphasizing the importance of basic skills.