Archive for September 19th, 2006

I Guess the New York Times Doesn’t Know About Singapore Math

September 19, 2006 @ 8:21 pm | Filed under:

An opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times ("Teaching Math, Singapore Style") discusses the recent decision by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to revert to the old-fashioned method of teaching math by drilling the basics.

…[I]n the late 1980’s…many schools moved away from traditional mathematics instruction, which
required drills and problem solving. The new system, sometimes derided
as “fuzzy math,’’ allowed children to wander through problems in a
random way without ever learning basic multiplication or division. As a
result, mastery of high-level math and science was unlikely. The new
math curriculum was a mile wide and an inch deep, as the saying goes,
touching on dozens of topics each year.

Many people trace this
unfortunate development to a 1989 report by an influential group, the
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. School districts read its
recommendations as a call to reject rote learning. Last week the
council reversed itself, laying out new recommendations that will focus
on a few basic skills at each grade level.

Under the new (old)
plan, students will once again move through the basics — addition,
subtraction, multiplication, division and so on — building the skills
that are meant to prepare them for algebra by seventh grade. This new
approach is being seen as an attempt to emulate countries like
Singapore, which ranks at the top internationally in math.

Sounds like the NCTM is thinking along the same lines as many home educators. The Singapore Math curriculum—a series of math texts and workbooks originally used in Singapore primary schools—is quite popular with American homeschoolers. What’s funny is that I’ve always thought the Singapore math books jumped around a lot, which is the opposite of the approach Singapore-the-country is being lauded for in this article. That was actually something Jane enjoyed about the 2nd-grade Singapore Math workbooks: they included fractions, geometry, and graphs along with the multiple-digit addition and subtraction that was the main focus of that year’s material. (But they do include a lot of drill in the basic processes, especially if you use both the workbooks and the non-consumable texts.)

Jane loved the puzzles and riddles in the workbooks: in the early grades, Singapore Math feels more like a puzzle book than a math text, what with the games and the cartoon illustrations.

A little way into the third-grade book, Jane got bored with Singapore and asked if we could go back to Math-U-See. We switched, and she’s been cranking away with MUS ever since. It’s an approach that really works for her; she loves Steve Demme’s sense of humor, she enjoys his explanation of the concepts, and the DVD format really appeals to her. She likes to watch the DVDs with a markerboard in front of her, and she’ll pause every time Mr. Demme sets up a problem, solving it before he does, to see if she got the right answer.

She tends to watch three or four lessons in a gulp, and then she’ll go back to them later, one by one, doing two or three of the six workbook pages that make up each lesson. When we reached the fractions book (Epsilon, I think it is?), she watched that DVD like I watch the BBC’S Pride and Prejudice: in binges, over and over. Even now, she still sometimes asks for it, although she has moved on through the Zeta level (decimals and percents) and the Pre-Algebra, which she is just finishing up. I’ve been looking at the Algebra level, trying to decide whether to order it here in Virginia where the sales tax is lower but we’ll have to move it, or wait until we get to California. (You order through regional distributors so you wind up paying sales tax from just about every state, I think.)

Rose likes Math-U-See too, but she enjoys a bout of workbookery from time to time—at which point we whip out the Singapore books for a week or two.

But I digress. I’m intrigued by the NCMT decision; I’ve heard about the fuzzy math but graduated high school a few years before the 1989 report that introduced it.