Ho Math Chess Research and Articles > Singapore Math Demystified

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10 Feb 2008

Singapore Math Demystified
Frank Ho, Amanda Yang
Teachers of Ho Math and Chess Learning Centre, Vancouver, BC, Canada
We have read and heard some reports on how some of the word problems of primary schools in Singapore are much more difficult than those corresponding parts of problems in North America and also how impressive that Singapore math uses bar model to teach math from grade 3 and up. Some teachers seem to think this more difficult word problems using bar model is the reason that Singapore 4th and 8th grade students consistently come in first on international math exams. Unfortunately, due to language barrier of North American parents and educators, We think this is a myth about Singapore math.
Frank’s primary math was educated in Asia and in Chinese way and when he was grade 6, he was working on “travel and distance” problem where Canadian students will use algebra to solve it at grade 9. How did he do it? He used so called “bar model” to solve them but even this is a bit myth to think all word problems can be solved by using bar model. We would state the reasons on how Singapore math is “better” is largely misunderstood since just because it is “harder” does not mean it is “better”.
1.     Singapore word problems math is much difficult than the math curriculum in US or Canada for the same grade but this does not only apply to Singapore, the math curriculum in Taiwan, China, Korea, Japan etc. countries are also much harder than the math curriculum in North America, but why parents and educators in US and Canada seem to keeping mentioning about Singapore? The primary reason is the Singapore math texts are already in English. Most parents and educators in North America can not read any texts written by Asian language other than English. These countries student’s math ability in Taiwan, China, Korea, Japan etc. are also higher than North America but no one was paying attention. The Taiwanese government has recently included multiplication as part of the curriculum on grade 2 instead of grade 3.
2.     Many parents in Asia send their children to after-school supplemental education like Ho Math and Chess and this factor does not seem to have been mentioned in any North American reports at all. We would suggest that part of the reasons that Singapore student’s higher math ability is partly because they got extra learning time and did extra practice. If this factor was not included in the report then the conclusion about why Singapore student’s math ability is higher is obscured.
3.     Is the bar model unique to Singapore math? Frank was not educated in Singapore but he was using the “line” model to solve word problem when he was educated in Taiwan many years ago, so where is the “bar” or “line” model originally coming from? We doubt anyone could really answer this question. The idea of bar model is not really new. When going to secondary school, most students would require use line number to express the solutions of equations although it means only one variable for line number. The concept of line number is very similar to “bar” model and Frank drew lines not bars when he was taught at primary school.
The Singapore math is singled out by educators and parents in North America perhaps is because their text is in English and there are other factors which have influenced the math ability in Singapore but seem to have been completely ignored such as extra learning time and parent’s attitude and efforts their parents put on their own children.
Bar model is a very good teaching method and this is the reason that we at Ho Math and Chess also develops a workbook which uses line (bar) model but it is wrong to think this is an universal way to solve all word problems, there are many word problems where the bar model is not suitable and thus we also use Symbol or Table to help students to think and tackle the word problems. No method can really be claimed as the only method to solve all primary word problems but with a few generalized and powerful methods, then by using these methods children will feel more comfortable to solve word problems.
More details can be found at www.mathandchess.com.    

Frank Ho, Amanda Yang