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How and Why I Became Interested in Singapore Math

In 1997, I embarked on a journey that would fundamentally alter my perspective on mathematics education—my introduction to Singapore math. This exploration ignited a passion within me, propelling me into a realm of inquiry, travel, and transformation. As I recount this pivotal juncture, it becomes clear that my encounter with Singapore math was not a mere academic curiosity, but a catalyst that reshaped my teaching philosophy and influenced the trajectory of my career.

The catalyst for my exploration was a series of workshops in 1997 centered around the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This landmark study meticulously compared math achievement across over 40 countries, spanning grades 4, 8, and 12. Amid this global evaluation, Singapore and several East Asian nations emerged as frontrunners, their math proficiency outshining that of the United States, which grappled with middling results. This revelation struck a chord with me, as I was then an 8th-grade teacher at Public School No. 2 in Paterson, New Jersey, yearning to refine my approach to teaching mathematics.

Within those workshop walls, I found myself engrossed in video footage showcasing mathematics classrooms from Japan, Germany, and the United States. The American lesson appeared familiar—a teacher demonstrating procedural steps, followed by individual student practice. In stark contrast, the Japanese classroom exuded an aura of distinctiveness. Here, the teacher introduced complex challenges, prompting students to navigate the intricacies of problems using previously acquired knowledge. Diverse solution methods were shared and discussed, illuminating key mathematical insights. The students, animated and engaged, even applauded one another's contributions. This experience planted a seed of discontent within me.

An intense realization swept over me—my students were missing out on a profound educational experience, one that transcended the conventional methodology.

Determined to effect change, I resolved to adapt the pedagogical essence of the Japanese lesson. Yet, this transition was no simple feat. The voluminous 600-page textbook I employed did not lend itself to the problem-solving-oriented approach I envisioned. Word problems, relegated to the book's closing pages, often remained untouched amidst the flurry of procedural drills. Undaunted, I charted a new course. Flipping the script, I reversed the teaching process, confronting students with a word problem at the outset, inviting them to delve into its intricacies, share diverse strategies, and engage in collective discourse. Initially, the results were tumultuous—my students were perplexed, mirroring my own frustration. A pivotal moment ensued. Confronted by their teacher's evident struggle, my students candidly inquired about my disquietude. The workshop and the Japanese lesson video became the focal point of discussion, a lens through which I unveiled my aspirations. Unexpectedly, their response was one of candor—"Why didn't you just tell us this was what you wanted?" They hungered for clarity, their willingness to adapt eclipsing my apprehensions.

The dawn of the subsequent day witnessed a remarkable metamorphosis. Students embraced the novel learning paradigm, immersing themselves in active participation. Their enthusiasm for math burgeoned, punctuated by spontaneous applause, as they unveiled their solutions. Emboldened by the positive shift, I extended an invitation to the school's principal, ushering her into the realm of my reimagined mathematics instruction. The ensuing impact was profound—a realization that paved the way for video recordings of my lessons, shared with teachers as part of a voluntary math study group. Notably, even Dr. Jim Hiebert, a leading TIMSS researcher and co-author of "The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom," acknowledged my endeavors, expressing keen interest in my pedagogical transformation.

Yet, my journey had only just commenced, as I uncovered the multifaceted layers of effective math teaching. The Japanese educators I interacted with revealed three pivotal facets underpinning their pedagogy:

  1. A profound mastery of mathematical content, a trait that resonated even in their primary educators.

  2. The utilization of streamlined, lightweight textbooks, fostering focus and coherence.

  3. A commitment to continuous refinement through a collaborative professional learning process called Lesson Study.

Inspired, we commenced our own Lesson Study endeavors, grappling with the challenge of crafting engaging lessons within the confines of our conventional textbooks. Here, Singaporean textbooks emerged as a revelation—a kinship with Japanese counterparts evident in their simplicity, cohesiveness, and capacity to delve into concepts with depth. Cartoon illustrations, minimalist yet profound, further aided understanding. Among their treasures, the bar model method—a visual tool for solving intricate problems—captured our attention, promising newfound clarity.

The dawn of 2000 heralded a monumental decision—to adopt Singapore math textbooks for grades K-8. Unfazed by British spellings and exotic gastronomic references, students embraced this enriching cultural odyssey, driven by the alluring simplicity of the approach. The symbiosis between Singaporean textbooks and the Lesson Study process proved transformative, germinating seeds of improvement within our math instruction.

However, challenges intertwined with our successes. We recognized that elevating our teaching to Singaporean standards necessitated a parallel escalation of our mathematical prowess. Guest workshops kindled our enlightenment, as did the act of teaching itself. The textbooks, I later learned, were ingeniously designed to empower teachers with mathematical comprehension—a facet that proved invaluable given the relatively short post-secondary training Singaporean educators received before entering classrooms.

My journey's trajectory evolved, leading me beyond the confines of my classroom to the role of a math facilitator. Within intimate group settings, Lesson Study thrived, textbooks became tomes of discovery, and bar models became tools of mastery. I recall with fondness an instance where a first-grade teacher, after struggling with and solving a complex 6th-grade problem, leapt from her seat, triumphant exclamation filling the room. This moment encapsulated the transformative potential of Lesson Study, its power to unite educators in exploration and discussion.

This part of my narrative encapsulates a prologue—a testament to the profound paradigm shift catalyzed by the realm of Singapore math. With each page that follows, the reader is invited to journey alongside me, delving deeper into the heart of this transformative pedagogy, its principles, and its embodiment in classrooms half a world away.

Stay tuned for the next post: Unveiling Singapore's Mathematics Success

©Bill Jackson, 2023, all rights reserved.

May not be reproduced or shared without the author’s permission.

Some edits suggested by OpenAI's language model.

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