As an educator based in Singapore, I have taught children from both Singapore and American schools. The greatest difference I have noticed in the way Math was taught is that in Singapore, it goes in depth into the core topics from elementary to middle school while in American schools, students are taught a wide spectrum of topics but at a comparatively superficial level.

As an example, this is a typical homework of both schools at grade 5 level:

A trained Math educator would be able to spot that I would have an easier time teaching the child from an American school as the questions are simpler. Indeed, they are. The questions from the homework of an American school are not questions that would be able to stretch the child’s potential in Mathematical understanding and reasoning. In contrast, the Math homework of a Singapore school would thrust the child into a mental frenzy as the child struggles to understand and distinguish concepts like “ 3/7 of the fruits are apples while the rest are oranges” from “1/6 of the apples are red while the rest are green”.

In my distant memory, such questions took me 3 to 4 months of intense practice to truly master the concepts of fraction when I was in grade 5.

In essence, why are children in Singapore better at Math? I would think that its success lies in these 3 key areas:

1. Modelling Questions

Helping children to understand and model Math problems is the key focus of elementary Math education in Singapore. While arithmetic skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are important, what sets Singapore apart is the introduction of word problems to children from as young as Grade 1. A typical 7-year-old child from a school in Singapore would be exposed to problems such as these listed below:

The rationale behind imparting model solving skills is to help children breakdown complex word problems into smaller bite-size information so that they can better understand the question requirement. There are many ways to model out a question which include illustrating with images, using bar diagram and organising the clues into a table.

Modelling Math problems will help children to build confidence in the subject as CHILDREN will slowly realise that seemingly complex problems can be broken down into smaller familiar steps. At the same time, imparting them the skill to tackle problems will develop their tenacity as they will be more likely to persist in finding a solution even though they may not have the answer at that moment.

2. Less is More

The neural networks in the brains of children are malleable but rapidly developing each day. By focusing on less topics but going deeper into each, it will help students form better connections among the new information and knowledge acquired. This is the secret to deep learning.

This is how Math skills are introduced to children in Singapore from Grade 1 to 6:

Children are first exposed to WHOLE NUMBERS followed by different ways to represent non-integer numbers. Through this process, the children will discover and master the concept of PROPORTION by the time they graduate from junior school.

In recent years, the Common Core standard developed in the United States has been modelled after a similar approach. However, based on my experience, when the standards are implemented on the ground, the questions taught in American schools are not as rigorous when compared to Singapore schools. This is clearly illustrated by the homework examples above. Therefore, the focus on depth rather than breadth has given an edge to Singapore’s students.

3. Practice & Practice

Lastly, undeniably, the homework load of a typical student in Singapore will most likely be heavier than a child studying in non-Asian countries. The children in Singapore have to undergo gruelling practices to excel in Math. Most students have extra help from private tutors and after school activities. While this may be an unhealthy phenomenon to many people in the West, this has undoubtably contributed to the competency level of the average student in Singapore.