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Singapore Math and Constructivism

I am a big believer in teaching mathematics from a Constructivist perspective, which means enabling children to develop their own meaningful strategies for solving problems, instead of just blindly teaching traditional algorithms.  It also means giving children time, space, and materials to explore mathematical concepts and create their own understanding, before you start imposing your own thinking upon them.

One of my favorite at-home curriculums for teaching math is Right Start, but I have always been curious about Singapore Math because it so popular with homeschoolers.  It is also popular with families who are Afterschoolers, even if they have never heard about that term before.

Even just a casual internet search will tell you that many parents who are confused about Constructivism, or unhappy with how it is being implemented in their children’s publics schools, choose Singapore as the at home alternative to help get their children “back on track”. I have even seen a blog that is very much dedicated to how much better Singapore Math is than current Constructivist textbooks.

The problem that I see with all of this public school curriculum bashing is that when I look at the Singapore Primary Mathematics Standards Edition textbooks, I see a lot of Constructivism.  In fact, there is enough of a Constructivist influence in the 4A book, that I have no problem with my son Bruce(6.5) using it on an Afterschooling basis.  Here are the main, Constructivist elements that I like about the 4A book:

  • Metacognition: There is an emphasis on helping students think about thinking.  There is also guidance through the thinking process.  This is very Constructivist!!!
  • Spiraling Curriculum: Most concepts are taught, and then revisited again and again throughout the year.  The Constructivist public school curriculums that I have seen also use this spiraling method.
  • Visualization: There are a lot of pictures and modeling.  A good Constructivist classroom would also encourage pictures, drawing and modeling to help reach visual learners.
  • Multiple Strategies: Again and again I keep seeing examples of more than one way to solve a problem.  Alternatives are shown beyond just traditional algorithms.

This is really surprising to me because some of the most vocal critics of Constructivism I have seen online are also parents who choose Singapore as their children’s math program.  They tend to keelhaul Constructivism and hail Singapore as their mathematical savoir. This is really bizarre, because comparing Singapore with a public school Constructivist curriculum like Dale Seymour Investigations is not like comparing apples and oranges; it’s more like comparing apples and pears.

If you were to think about math as a continuum with Back to Basics “just-teach-her-to-borrow-and-carry” on one hand, and pure Constructivism “she will discover every new bit of knowledge herself” on the other, then in my opinion, Singapore would not be considered a Constructivist program nor would it be considered a Back to Basics program.  It would fall somewhere in the middle, like Houghton Mifflin’s Math Expressions.  Falling closer to the Constructivist end would be programs like Right Start, Dreambox Math, and Hands on EquationsSaxon, Horizon and Life of Fred would be closer to a Back to Basics philosophy.

So what do I think of Singapore Primary Mathematics Standards Edition?  I think it’s pretty good, but for a complete homeschool program I still prefer Right Start.  For Afterschooling though, I can see the benefit of using a cheaper, more colorful program like Singapore, if your child preferred it.  The pages are smaller and easier to complete, so if your kid gets a “buzz” from completing pages, then Singapore would facilitate that.

If you do use Singapore Standards edition for a homeschooling program, then you really would need to buy the complete program, including the word problem book.  As a former public school teacher I have to say that there are not nearly enough word problems in the textbook alone to adequately prepare kids for state standardized tests.

Our own experience with Singapore remains limited.  I brought the 4A textbook home for my son Bruce in the middle of Christmas break last week and he completed 23 out of 161 pages in about three days.  Part of this is because the Singapore 4A geometry section is much easier than the third grade Houghton Mifflin Math Expressions work Bruce has been doing.  The multiplication section was all review for him too, because he has completed Dreambox 3rd grade.  But Bruce liked the Singapore textbook.  It is a lot more “fun” to look at than Right Start Level D, and he willingly plowed through pages in 4A.

For a more experienced opinion of Singapore, I’d like to include my friend Claire’s earlier comments from my K-1 Summer Bridge page:

For parents who have sticker shock at the price of RS, I would recommend Singapore Primary Mathematics. Note that these are *NOT* the “Singapore Math” workbooks sold at Barnes & Noble (those are by a different publisher and are substantially “dumbed-down” from the original program).  I prefer using a “hands-on” program like RS to a workbook-based one like Singapore in the primary grades, but RS is pricey and very parent-intensive. Also, Singapore is easier to accelerate and/or up the challenge level for a bright student.

I would recommend getting the Primary Math textbook and either the workbook or the Intensive Practice book (depending on whether the student is average or advanced).  The Intensive Practice book is only available in the U.S. edition but it is very easy to match up the topics in the Stds. ed. text with the ones in the IP book. The Stds. ed. text is full-color and has more of a “cartoony” look to it. I actually prefer the “cleaner” look of the US ed. books myself, but overall feel the Stds. ed. is better.  The books are available at Singaporemath.com, Christian Book Distributors, and Rainbow Resource Center.

Thank you Claire!  Finally, I would like to add my own thoughts about Singapore Math and gifted children.  Just because my six year old can burn through 23 pages of 4A in a few days doesn’t mean he should. Gifted children deserve instruction too.  The deserve attention. They deserve good teaching, and they deserve experiences. They do not deserve to have their curiosity or love of learning drowned in busywork, endless workbooks, or too much isolation.

I think that parents of gifted children should have a clear and consistent message. Too often society says: “Oh, that child is so smart.  Just send him off in the corner with an advanced book and he will be fine.”  In my opinion, that does a huge disservice to gifted children.  I would hope that nobody reading this would use a curriculum like Singapore that way.  Instead, here are some of my favorite 4th grade level activities that you might consider combining with the 4A Standards edition, to “jazz it up” a bit:

Fractions

Geometry

 More to come!


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