From maths mystery to maths mastery: Coldfall Primary School teacher on enlightening trip to Singapore
PUBLISHED: 15:21 21 April 2017 | UPDATED: 17:06 21 April 2017
A group of teachers from a Muswell Hill school paid a visit to Singapore over the Easter break in a bid to expand their outlook on the teaching of maths.
Here Rob Bean, a Year 4 teacher at the Muswell Hill school, told the Ham and High why the trip was such an eye-opener...
As a teacher from north London walking into a maths lesson in a Singapore primary classroom, with 30 degree heat, 100 per cent humidity, 40 children and no air-conditioning, the ceiling fans whirring noisily overhead, and the sounds of a new block being built next door, it’s tempting to wonder how anybody can teach or learn anything.
Yet learn they do: Singapore’s students regularly come out top in maths in international testing, with UK students well down the table.
In an effort to emulate their success, primary schools are increasingly looking to the ‘Singapore’ or ‘mastery’ approach to mathematics teaching, ensuring children are confident with the basics before moving on to more difficult concepts.
"In an effort to emulate their success, primary schools are increasingly looking to the ‘Singapore’ or ‘mastery’ approach to mathematics teaching, ensuring children are confident with the basics before moving on to more difficult concepts."
At Coldfall Primary School in Muswell Hill, we have recently adopted the Inspire Maths textbook scheme, published by Oxford University Press and based on a textbook called My Pals are Here, used widely in Singapore.
But what exactly does teaching for ‘mastery’ look like in practice? How are textbooks used in the Singapore classroom? Do students spend more time on maths, perhaps at the expense of other subjects, or even at the expense of a childhood?
These were some of the questions we had as we visited three Singapore primary schools over the Easter break.
Our first stop was Nan Chiau Primary School, where we were given a warm welcome by Principal Mae Quah and the children: all 1,800 of them! And this is a typical size for a primary school in Singapore.
Enormous by comparison with UK primary schools, the size of Singapore primary schools does allow for greater flexibility with timetabling, and the Singapore Ministry of Education has recently taken advantage of this by encouraging schools to move towards a specialist system.
Increasingly, Singaporean children are taught maths by a teacher who has chosen to specialise in the subject, and who only teaches maths.
Teachers we spoke to enjoyed the extra time they could dedicate to one subject, and the improved perspective they had about the progression of learning from one year to the next.
Another striking feature is how technology is used in lessons. Teachers use videos, iPads and visualisers, not only to show the children what to do, but also to encourage them to share their thinking with the rest of the class.
“I think the visualiser belongs alongside Google as the two most important developments in education of the 21st century,” joked Mdm Sharida Sahib, principal at South View Primary School.
Meanwhile, at Admiralty Primary School, a short ride away on the city’s efficient (and well air-conditioned) transport public system, parents can even opt for their children to join iPad classes, where almost all teaching is done through the use of tablet devices.
Children follow on-screen explanations and instructions, but are also able to use the devices to upload images of their work, which the teacher can monitor and display on the whiteboard to highlight good reasoning or address misconceptions.
Children use tablet devices to take pictures of their group work and upload them so the teacher can monitor their progress and highlight good work or spot misconceptions.
Much of the work we saw was done in this way, with students in pairs or in groups, often working with concrete resources or ‘manipulatives’ such as multilink cubes or fraction wheels, a far cry from the image we might have of the Asian classroom, with compliant students sitting passively in rows.
This emphasis on using concrete resources, before moving on to pictorial, and finally abstract representations of number concepts is another key part of the Singapore philosophy, and we certainly saw this in action throughout our visit.
In one Year 4 lesson, children used cubes to explore 2D representations of 3D shapes, while in another Year 1 class, children used everyday classroom objects to add numbers within 20.
Children work in groups, using manipulatives like multi-link cubes to explore the concepts behind number and shape.
As for textbooks, we hardly saw them being used at all, although all children from Year 1 onwards were asked to complete tasks in their workbooks as daily homework.
“Schools and teachers need to be aware of the pitfalls of textbooks,” warned Albert Alcantara, principal of Admiralty Primary School.
“The textbook is really supposed to act as a minimum standard for teachers, and we encourage and expect all teachers to adapt material depending on the needs of the students.”
And on the evidence we saw, Singapore’s maths teachers certainly do this and are well supported by maths departments which are themselves ready to change course in response to emerging needs.
At Nan Chiau, teachers have identified a weakness in the children’s ability to express their mathematical reasoning orally, and actively seek to create more opportunities for students to speak in class.
Similarly, at South View, the maths department is developing its own materials to better assess and improve children’s conceptual understanding.
Senior teacher Ms Teo Wee Sim said: “Our philosophy is to move from maths mystery to maths mastery, and to do that children must have a really good grasp of the concepts behind their calculations.”
Our visit was extremely fruitful, and we are very grateful to the schools we visited and the teachers we observed for hosting us and inviting us into their lessons.
We return to Coldfall brimming with ideas about how we might use what we have seen to help our own children achieve highly in maths.