Friday 24 October 2014

Singapore maths is travelling the world

More countries use textbooks based on S'pore approach to teach subject
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 23 Oct 2014

SINGAPORE mathematics is going places, and there are no signs of it slowing down.

From India to France and Chile, more countries have, in recent years, turned to the famed Singapore approach to teaching the subject, using visual means such as objects, pictures and diagrams to teach concepts.

Education officials and publishers abroad are paying closer attention to the way maths is taught here after Singapore students emerged tops in maths and problem-solving in international tests.

A total of 10 countries - including South Africa, Brunei and the Netherlands - are using customised textbooks based on Singapore maths produced by publisher Marshall Cavendish Education.

This is up from just two countries - Thailand and Libya - five years ago.

These books are based on a series of maths textbooks, called My Pals Are Here! The principal author of the books is Dr Fong Ho Kheong, 66.

Marshall Cavendish Education's maths materials are being used in 42 countries, where 40 to 100 per cent of schools use its textbooks.

The publishing giant has also partnered Oxford University Press to publish a new series based on Singapore maths for Britain next year.

Another publisher, Scholastic Australia, has also adopted Singapore maths in its new series called Prime Mathematics, used in Australia. The textbooks also incorporate good practices from South Korea and Hong Kong.

Scholastic Australia's head of education, Mrs Christine Vale, said a trial with the books started with three Australian schools in July, and has grown to 50 schools.

In India, 85 primary schools in areas such as Mumbai, New Delhi and Hyderabad have been using another version of the books - known as Alpha Mathematics - since April.

Dr Duriya Aziz, senior vice-president of Scholastic's international education unit, said there is more awareness of the importance of maths. "The focus for a long time was on literacy, but more countries recognise that to solve problems, you need good grounding in numeracy," she said.

Mrs Vale, a former primary school maths teacher, said: "There is interest in how maths is taught in Singapore because it is obviously very successful."

In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment, held in 2012, Singapore students came in second in maths, behind their peers in Shanghai.

Australia was ranked 19th.

Mr Jeffery Thomas and his Singaporean wife, Ms Dawn Yuen, who own a business selling Singapore textbooks in the United States, said sales have "increased significantly" in the past five years. Their company, Singapore Math Inc, distributes textbooks to several thousand schools in the US and Canada.

Mrs Vale said that while most topics such as fractions are similar, the methods developed by the Ministry of Education here allow children to build on their understanding gradually. "It goes more in-depth about each topic, whereas our schools tend to move quickly from one topic to another."

Ms Nita Arora, principal of Sri Venkateshwar International School in New Delhi, said teachers were sceptical at first about using the series, but are finding its methods helpful for children to understand concepts.

For instance, they learn fractions through means such as figures, paper-strip folding and a food-dividing activity section.

This has allowed the teachers to "think in many ways" and children to "relate to numeracy to everyday life", she said.

Visualising abstract concepts
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 23 Oct 2014

The method involves a three-step learning process: concrete-pictorial-abstract. It uses visual means like objects, pictures or diagrams to teach concepts.

Developed here in the 1980s, the approach is based on American psychologist Jerome Bruner's theory in the 1960s that people learn in three basic stages: through real objects, pictures and symbols.

Number symbols, like 5 + 2 = 7, can be difficult for children to understand. So, the technique allows them to build on their understanding gradually.

It starts with them handling "concrete" objects, to drawing "pictorial" representations of them, and eventually understanding and using "abstract" maths symbols.

An example is the bar model technique, which helps students to visualise as they draw rectangular blocks to represent numerical values.

Teacher's love for maths keeps multiplying
Author of S'pore maths textbooks still passing the method on to others
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2014

IF YOU are 21 or younger - or if you had taught children how to add - you might remember a brightly-coloured primary school maths textbook with furry-looking characters holding up calculators and building blocks.

Published by Marshall Cavendish Education, the My Pals Are Here! series was first taken up in schools here in 2001 and is now into its third edition.

More than 80 per cent of primary schools here use it and thousands of children have pored over the books. The books have proven so popular that they have been adapted for use in 10 countries, from Brunei to Chile.

The man behind these books is Dr Fong Ho Kheong, 66, a former maths teacher who later taught teachers to teach maths.

It was about 14 years ago in 1999 that he was approached by a publisher to write the textbooks.

"Just write!" said the series' lead author, recalling a piece of advice he gave himself then.

At that time, he was a maths lecturer at the National Institute of Education (NIE), and writing maths assessment books, but it was still a challenge to him.

"It's totally different to write assessment books and textbooks," he said. "Assessment books are more about drilling and practising, so you just need to come up with questions. Actually, any teacher can do that.

"But a textbook is different - it emphasises learning, the topics and brings in pedagogy, strategies and concepts."

Born in the state of Perak in Malaysia to a businessman and housewife, Dr Fong is the third of eight children. He graduated with a maths degree from the University of Malaya, before coming to NIE in Singapore to obtain a diploma in education.

He taught maths in a secondary school in Malaysia for five years and was later asked by his former professor to join the NIE.

He did that from 1978, training many batches of Singapore's teachers before he left the country in 2003 to join his family who had moved to Sydney earlier.

He took up Singapore citizenship in 1988, and completed a PhD in mathematics education from King's College London, University of London, in 1992.

These days, home for Dr Fong and his wife, a former teacher, is a landed house in Sans Souci, a southern Sydney suburb.

But he is still kept busy by his love for maths.

Last year, he opened an enrichment centre in Sydney using a "BrainBuilder" programme, which is based on Singapore maths methods, such as model drawings.

The centre now has more than 100 students.

In July, he opened another centre in Kuala Lumpur, which now has about 60 students.

He hopes to set up a third centre in Singapore next year, and is looking for a venue.

He has also licensed his programme to 26 other centres in Malaysia, where some 2,000 students are enrolled.

As a consultant, he flies to countries such as the United States several times a year to run workshops and talks to explain to educators how Singapore maths works. "Numeracy is an important skill. Children must have the basic foundation of numeracy so that they can go on to use their skills in society as engineers, accountants or academics," he said.

He has two children of his own in their 30s, and three grandchildren. His daughter, a former accountant and the elder of his two children, helps out at his Sydney centre, while his son is a venture capitalist in San Francisco.

"It's about imparting two types of skills to the young: basic numeracy skills and critical thinking skills to those who have the ability to go further," he said.

And Singapore maths, which uses a concrete-pictorial-abstract approach, could very well be the key to doing that, he said.

The method uses visual means, such as diagrams and objects, to represent concepts, and this works, he said. "Children don't see the logic if you just give them a lot of words. They understand it better through pictures."

Will he retire any time soon?

"Unlikely," he said. "Maths is my greatest passion and I like it because I can understand it so well.

"I spend a lot of time at the centre teaching so that I can keep in touch with students and keep improving on my materials."

But over the years, he has found time for hobbies, namely, going for Cantopop concerts and watching tennis matches live.

His favourite Hong Kong singers are Frances Yip and Joseph Koo, and he enjoys watching Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal.

"I don't feel tired, but it's definitely important to get rest in between," he said.

He solved Singapore's maths problem
Ex-teacher led team that created model method for teaching, learning
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 24 Nov 2014

PLACING Singapore on the world map was never Dr Kho Tek Hong's aim.

But the former mathematics teacher and curriculum specialist led a team which did just that - by coming up with the Singapore way to teach the subject.

The method - founded on the concrete-pictorial-abstract approach, which helps pupils grab concepts such as fractions and comparison - has made its way to other countries.

At least 12 countries - including the United States, the Netherlands, India, South Africa, Australia and Brunei - are using textbooks based on Singapore maths.

American educators took notice after Singapore students registered top performances in the 1995 and 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, an international study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), held in 2012, Singapore students came in second in maths, behind their peers in Shanghai. Pisa is a global study of 15-year-olds' abilities in maths, science and reading, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

But four decades ago, things were very different, said Dr Kho, 68, in an interview with The Straits Times.

At least a quarter of Primary 6 pupils failed to meet the minimum numeracy level, a survey by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in 1975 showed. Tests in 1981 also went on to reveal that many primary school pupils had not mastered basic maths skills such as division.

By then, the ministry was already looking into the problem through the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, which was set up in 1980 to develop good quality teaching and learning materials for all subjects.

And Dr Kho, then 34, was the man tasked with solving the maths problem.

"In the 1970s, learning was very passive and students learnt by memorising and imitation," said the former Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Junior College teacher who was to lead a team of nine specialists.

"Students followed teachers' examples without really understanding. Maths was a mechanical practice."

The challenge facing the Primary Mathematics Project: How to make an abstract subject easily understandable to pupils at a time when English proficiency was quite low.

The answer was pictures.

After research which took Dr Kho and some team members to 10 countries such as Israel, France, Japan and Canada, some American learning theories caught their eye. One was psychologist Jerome Bruner's theory in the 1960s that people learn in three stages: First by using real objects, then by using pictures, and, finally, by using symbols.

Another theory was the part-whole approach by professor of education at Stanford University James G. Greeno. It involved looking at quantities in terms of the relationships between parts and a whole.

The theories led to techniques such as the model method, which refers to the use of bar drawings that visually represent quantities.

Former Raffles Institution maths teacher Hector Chee, who was part of the Singapore team, said: "You teach maths by understanding, and the pictorial method works because it helps students visualise and solve problems."

The 81-year-old added: "One of the hardest topics in maths is algebra, because it uses formulae, numbers and letters. So the model method helped to translate 'ABCs' into blocks."

When the team first presented the model method to teachers in the early 1980s, it was a hit.

"In fact, they liked it so much that they went overboard, and started to insist that students use it for every single problem sum even when it was not necessary," said Dr Kho, who holds a PhD in applied mathematics from the then University of Singapore.

Both men have since retired - Mr Chee in 1995, and Dr Kho in 2007.

The project, which lasted from 1980 to 1996, produced three editions of textbooks which were used in primary schools for more than 20 years until the early 2000s.

The new textbooks used in schools now still rely on the model method.

Fellow educators such as Madam Liu Yueh Mei said Dr Kho had a key role in raising Singapore's maths standards.

The 41-year-old former curriculum planning officer who worked with him in the 2000s through two reviews of maths curriculum at MOE, said: "His contributions to maths education here is phenomenal.

"Most people stop at learning theories but what he did was to translate them into practice.

"He created a tool - the model method we know - and that made the most impact on the ground with teachers and students."

Married to a retired Chinese language teacher, Dr Kho, who has four children, continues to work part-time as a consultant to MOE and keeps in touch with trends in schools.

"Today, maths and language standards have gone up, and it's a lot more competitive," he said.

"Some years ago, there were complaints from parents that the language used in exam questions was too complex.

"At times, language in problem sums can get quite confusing, so we should be very careful to not let language hinder the learning of mathematics. But this has since improved."

Looking back, he described the Primary Mathematics Project as his "whole life's effort".

He said: "I just wanted to do a good job helping teachers teach maths and students learn maths."

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