Mathematical Problem Solving and the Education System in Singapore

Singapore Math

Prior to reading chapter one of “Mathematical Problem Solving” (Kaur, Yeap, Kapur, 2009) earlier this evening, if someone asked me what I knew about “Singapore Math,” I would say I knew nothing about it. [1], [2]  From perceptions of earlier readings, I might have added that it was a method of mathematics instruction that produced wonderful results for student’s in learning mathematics, at least since most people referenced it with a degree of reverence.

My brief reading of the first chapter now leads me to believe it is the teaching of mathematics with problem solving as its central focus, integrating standards and attributes of mathematical thinking.  Further research revealed that the framework for Singapore Math is similar to the process standards espoused by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), as well as the National Research Council’s Five Strands of Mathematical Proficiency in the U.S., both of which my students are required to reflect upon as summer work.  The following figure, taken from Kaur et. al., 2009, illustrates the centrality of problem solving to Singapore Math.  I find the title for the figure confusing since it does not depict curriculum, per se, but dimensions of mathematics practice that are necessary to understand mathematics in a meaningful manner.  At the same time, it could simply refer to the framework used when the curriculum is taught, which is more likely the case.  Nonetheless, its success in Singapore suggests it has more than a minor amount of merit.

Singapore Math’s Role in Singapore

Singapore Math serves a mission critical purpose in Singapore.  More than nearly any other country, Singapore realizes the essential role mathematics plays in its continued success as the following excerpt from Mathematical Problem Solving (Kaur et. al., 2009) reveals.

The vision of the Ministry of Education in Singapore is Moulding the Future of the Nation i.e. education is perceived as critical to the survival of the country. Mathematics and other school subjects are platforms for students to develop a set of competencies that hold them in good stead to function well in the type of economy that Singapore engages in. It is no wonder that the Ministry of Education has over the years introduced a slew of initiatives, two of which are Thinking School, Learning Nation (TSLN) and Teach Less, Learn More (TLLM). TSLN aims to develop good thinking through school subjects. TLLM encourages teachers to reduce the content taught via direct teaching but instead engage students in meaningful activities so that they use knowledge to solve problems and whilst solving problems extend their knowledge through inquiry. Thus, a shift in the emphasis of mathematics teaching and learning from acquisition of skills to “development and improvement of a person’s intellectual competence” (p.5, Ministry of Education, 2006a), makes it necessary for mathematics education to make mathematical problem solving and its instruction its focus. It is the aim of this book to provide readers with a range of ideas on how this can happen in the mathematics classroom.

Mathematics provides the tools necessary to solve problems that left unchecked could annihilate entire civilizations; to design systems that provide for the health, safety, and welfare of a country’s inhabitants; or to protect a nation from enemies, both foreign and domestic.

While many countries recognize the necessity to innovate to survive, few have developed as comprehensive a mathematics framework as Singapore for educating its citizens.  I hope that the efforts of the Common Core State Standards, with its inclusion of mathematical practices derived from NCTM and NRC alike elevates our nation’s commitment to mathematics instruction for all public school students that is as effective as Singapore Math seems to be for Singapore.

I plan to investigate Singapore Math further to see how successful it truly has been, as well as understand its pros and cons.  If anyone knows of any definitive references for Singapore Math that might shed the most current light on these items, please let me know.


[1]  Singapore Math as used colloquially in the U.S. to refer to the teaching methods for mathematics used in Singapore

[2]  As compiled by the Association of Mathematics Educators in Singapore

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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4 Responses to Mathematical Problem Solving and the Education System in Singapore

  1. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    As a side comment, i attended a Math for America lecture a few months ago, arrived late ( of course ), and the only seat remaining was at a table with high school students from Singapore. A few knew English comfortable enough to converse, all incredibly polite and industrious on the activities. Since I’m too old to go teach in China, let’s just say that we have to bring real context to the material as much as possible. Since by and large I have enough trouble with my song and dance routines to get them to learn enough to pass the regents, develop some basic skills and confidence, and move on to successfully tackle the next math class. You have to do more than change the names and locations in the problems. Unfortunately when you have level 2 in 9th grade they need 3 or 4 terms to really learn at a 75-80 level, and then only if they show up and you can control cell phones, etc.


    • Sounds like a great experience with the students from Singapore. In some ways, I wonder about the true significance of context. What I mean is whether context is the most important factor impeding student success or not. I lean towards not if considering ALL of the various standards defined for any particular subject. I lean towards yes if contemplating a way to obtain sustained student engagement with aspects of content. At the same time, I wonder if the latter instills enough understanding across the breadth of standards for students to do well on annual, standardized tests, which is the barometer for student achievement, sadly.


  2. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    Context matters less if there is a culture emphasizing the importance of learning leading to success and happiness. ask your students, i guess age 12 and higher, why the adults who they think are successful and happy got that way. Could have some fascinating answers; think carefully about phrasing for your age group.


    • As I teach HS, I’ve mentioned explicitly that education required to go from A to B, wherever B might be for a student, assuming B is a way of life they wish to live. While they recognize it may be true, they still flounder making it happen, for a variety of reasons. As a parent, I totally understand, as raising children these days very time consuming with many distractions available for kids, especially if there is little to no parental supervision after school.


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