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Raise the lowered bar for math

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The first step to improving math education in Manitoba is admitting we have a problem. Recently, a concerned group of math professors from four Manitoba universities provided our deputy minister of education, who has been attentive to our concerns, with a list of recommendations for K-8 math curriculum changes. These were largely based on our research of the Singapore primary math curriculum.

Singapore's rise to the top on international math assessments is remarkable considering that, in the mid-1980s, Singaporean Grade 8 students scored 13th out of 18 countries that participated in an international math assessment. Grade 4 students from the country also performed dismally, placing 13th among 15 nations at that time. The Singapore ministry of education quickly responded to the abysmal performance and transformed math and science education in the country. Amazingly, in 1995, Singapore's Grade 8 students scored first place in math on the Third International Math and Science Study. They repeated this top performance in 1999 and 2003 and, in the most recent TIMSS, scored third, slightly below Taiwan and South Korea. Singaporean Grade 8 students wrote the PISA for the first time in 2009 and took second place in math, just below Shanghai, China.

What changes did the Singapore ministry of education make that turned the country from a bottom-dweller to an envied world leader in math?

There are a host of factors that may have contributed to Singapore's success, two of the most obvious being rigorous teacher training in math and an excellent math curriculum.

The Singapore teachers college recruits teachers -- including primary teachers -- from the top third of high school graduating classes. Pre-service primary teachers thus have a very solid grounding in K-12 math and are further required to pass a rigorous entrance test in math prior to admittance to teachers college.

This is a far cry from the experience in Manitoba, where we recently presented the provincial government with a petition recommending K-8 teachers be required to take an academic stream of math from high school to receive certification.

Moreover, while studying at teachers college, Singapore's primary teachers-in-training take a minimum of six prescribed math courses -- some in content and some in pedagogy. First-year teachers in Singapore receive a reduced teaching load and are also paired with expert teacher mentors.

An obvious contributor to Singapore's success is their impressive math curriculum.

Singapore's curriculum framework clearly identifies five priority areas: concepts (or content), skills (such as the ability to calculate fluently without a calculator), processes (problem-solving techniques), attitudes (finding joy in mathematics) and meta-cognition (ability to select problem-solving techniques).

Currently, the Manitoba K-8 math curriculum is lacking balance among these areas, particularly when it comes to skills, which have been dangerously de-emphasized over the last few years.

Understanding of concepts is taught in Singapore math classrooms -- this is important -- but students are required to master critical concepts one to three years earlier than in Manitoba.

They are required to commit basic number facts, like times tables, to memory by the end of Grade 3. They've mastered long division and most other numerical procedures by the end of Grade 4.

Fluency with computational procedures is valued and mastered early through practice, then simple arithmetic does not interfere with students' abilities to solve more complex problems. Fraction arithmetic is also mastered much earlier.

Mastery of some important concepts, including memorization of times tables, fluency with vertical arithmetic and long division are not even listed in the current Manitoba curriculum.

The Singapore curriculum is not just about computations. Challenging multi-step word problems, which become progressively more difficult as students move through grades, are a significant part of their primary math curriculum.

The fact that Singapore kids are expert problem-solvers and their math education system promotes higher-order thinking cannot be disputed -- TIMSS tests computational proficiency, understanding of concepts and problem-solving.

Not to be overlooked is Singapore's commitment to providing extra help for struggling students. In Canadian classrooms, students are often moved through grades, even though they have not mastered concepts. As a consequence, teachers are faced with large gaps in student competence levels, and these gaps widen as the years progress. In Singapore, students who are having difficulties with math receive additional math instruction by specially trained math support teachers. They cover essentially the same material as their classmates, but at a slower pace.

This makes a lot of sense. Instead of setting the bar low for everyone, with the hope that all students will be able to reach it, why not set the bar higher and provide extra help for those who need it?

There may be cultural differences that also contribute to Singapore's success. All too often in North American cultures, adults label students as "good at math" and "not good at math." Singapore students, however, were once underdogs in math who rose to the top. Manitoba students possess the same intellectual potential as their Singaporean counterparts -- let's not underestimate our kids.

I am certain the average child in Manitoba can accomplish much more in math than they do now. If Singapore can improve math performance, so can we. Our economy will reap the rewards and, most importantly, our kids will too.

Anna Stokke is an associate professor of math at the University of Winnipeg and a co-founder of WISE Math. A link to the Singapore primary math curriculum can be found at wisemath.org

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2012 A10

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