4 Things to Know About Singapore Maths

Singapore maths receives a lot of coverage in the media and many schools worldwide are adopting it as a way of teaching maths. WhichSchoolAdvisor.com speaks to international teachers about how they have adopted the Singaporean approach to mathematics – and why.
4 Things to Know About Singapore Maths
By Carli Allan
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The Singapore method of teaching maths was developed by a team of teachers in Singapore in the 1980s for government-run schools. The aim was to move away from rote-learning and to focus instead on teaching children how to problem solve – how to be mathematicians.

Today, Singaporean maths has become widely adopted in various forms around the world it was introduced to the US curriculum in the 1990s and the Singaporean model was brought into some UK classrooms from 2014.

It consistently tops the rankings in international maths testing. In two international tests, TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) – which assess math and science competency in countries worldwide – Singapore is named as one of the top three rated countries for maths.

In the 2019 PISA rankings, one in seven students in Singapore (13.8%) perform at the highest level in maths; this compares to only 2.4% in OECD countries.

While the majority of international schools are following the UK curriculum or the IB programme, they do have the flexibility and freedom to adapt the curriculum; several international schools have introduced Singapore maths in their primary years. 

To help us understand why Singapore maths is so well highly regarded, and what a lesson in CPA (Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract) actually means, WhichSchoolAdvisor spoke to those teaching the subject in Singapore’s international schools – The Perse (Singapore) and St Joseph’s Institution International.  

What is Singapore maths?

Singapore mathematics is a teaching method based on the national mathematics curriculum of Singapore used for Year 1 to Year 6. Students learn and master fewer mathematical concepts in greater detail and learn these concepts using a three-step learning process.

It’s based on the belief that people learn in three stages: by using real objects, then pictures, and then through symbols. Teachers use modelling mathematical problems with visual aids; using coloured blocks to represent fractions or ratios, for example.

How are international schools teaching Singapore maths?

It’s taught within several international schools in Singapore including The Perse (Singapore), SJI International and the recently opened Knightsbridge International School.

The Perse School (Singapore) has opted to teach Singaporean maths in combination with the Cambridge curriculum for maths. Head of Maths Shaye Au explains why:

“The Cambridge Mathematics curriculum approaches mathematics teaching and learning from a vertical spiral perspective, which is great for touching points and ensuring systematic learning as our children progress through the years.

"On the other hand, the Singapore Maths curriculum focusses on the concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA) approach to the teaching and learning of mathematics which enhances the quality of conceptual learning and ensures a stronger foundational understanding in our pupils. It also delves deeper into problem solving strategies and equips our pupils with creative, critical and logical thinking skills that can carry them far in life. 

“By marrying the two curriculums at The Perse, we strive to allow our pupils to see the relevance of mathematics in everyday life, the applications of the concepts learnt, and then challenge them to solve problems requiring higher-order thinking skills once they have built a strong foundational understanding in the relevant concepts.”

What are the strengths of the Singaporean maths model?

Juliana Wong, Head of Mathematics at SJI International Elementary School highlights three key strengths of the Singapore maths curriculum.

“Each concept is introduced at a foundational level to ensure students develop a conceptual understanding of the topic. The content and application of skills are revisited within the grade and as children progress within the curriculum. 

“Also, Singapore Maths places a strong emphasis on developing transferable knowledge. By understanding concepts and the ‘Big Ideas in Mathematics’, students can make connections between old and new learning, develop their number sense, and further deepen mathematical understanding.      

“In addition, Singapore Maths focuses on developing effective and efficient problem-solving skills. Learners must be able to apply their mathematical understanding across topics and to real-life situations. Students need to be able to think critically explain and justify their reasoning. One approach towards problem-solving that has made Singapore Maths so popular is visualisation, particularly through model-drawing. Model-drawing enables students to visualise what may seem like a complex problem in a pictorial form. This aligns with how Singapore Maths is taught using the Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract (CPA) approach.”

One of the key differences of Singapore maths is this use of the concrete-pictorial-abstract approach, which Miss Shaye at The Perse describes as “a winning formula”. Miss Shaye also highlights the wider breadth of Singapore Maths in terms of numeracy, which can benefit students in their learning in other strands of mathematics. 

She adds:

“Singapore Mathematics also places a strong emphasis on the problem-solving framework, where skills, concepts, metacognition, processes and attitudes form the bedrock of guidance in teaching and learning.

"There is a strong focus on thinking skills and problem-solving heuristics, and the step-by-step guidance and facilitation provided by teachers following this curriculum and approach to teaching and learning challenges pupils to think critically and systematically, which in turn translates to real-world problem-solving skills that they can then carry with them into their later years in life.”

What would a typical Singapore maths lesson look like at primary level?

A typical maths classroom at The Perse (Singapore)

Miss Shaye (Perse) describes a typical mathematics lesson at primary level as a dynamic learning experience that uses a multi-modal approach to teaching and learning to keep students engaged.

“A teacher introduces a new concept with concrete materials and manipulatives, pupils are given the opportunities to use them to aid their understanding, and then the development of solving questions using the same concept but with pictorial representations in place of physical learning aids to serve as visual cues to remind them of the concepts taught via the use of the physical manipulatives. 

“A later development would be pupils internalising the concept and being able to wean off the reliance of any physical manipulatives to aid their solving of questions. There would also be plenty of mathematics games being played, activities and challenges on top of practice and quizzes.”

Juliana Wong at SJI International describes a typical maths lesson in the elementary school, which always begins with a mental starter to encourage mathematical thinking. 

“In the lesson introduction, the teacher guides students through an exploration of the concept using investigative tasks. In this part of the lesson, students share and discuss ideas and approaches. At the same time, the teacher checks for understanding and facilitates the development of conceptual understanding before directing them to the learning of the algorithm or process. 

“After guided practice, students explore their learning further through independent practice. Teachers use this portion of the lesson to support individual students or work with a small strategy group on a specific learning area. The lesson ends with a plenary to help students consolidate the day's learning or address key points for reflection and review.”

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