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The textbooks are brilliant...

January 19th 2016

It’s true Singapore students are at least 3 years ahead of English students in mathematical education by the time they reach Year 7. 


Well, the textbooks are brilliant, but that’s not the only reason.

This report/blog/conversation is the result of interviewing a number of staff during a visit to Singapore in August 2015. It was written towards the beginning of December, hence references to the F1 being staged in Singapore that week.

I am unable to quote the staff or the schools visited.  This is a matter of respect, in that Singapore has a different culture with regard to freedom of expression.  This is not to suggest that anything written here is in any way subversive.  My motivation for the visit was twofold.  I was visiting friends and, most importantly, as a Maths Hub, wondering what we could learn from this World Class ranked education system.  This visit proved to be fascinating.  I met with former Ministry officials, principal, Head of Secondary, Head of Maths, 13 other staff including Humanities and students, together with a couple of fantastic mums who would grace any school in the world.

I thank everyone involved and I am humbled to witness a World Class Educational environment.  I also managed to bring home a new syllabus Maths text book, which I hope will provide a stimulating resource for discussion across a number of Maths Curriculum Areas; a Scheme of Learning; and a Mathematical Training Programme.  I have included my list of planned questions but, as always, such was my interest, I went off on tangents on occasions.

I asked everyone the one main question:  Why are you so successful? 

I also visited classrooms.

Often when you ask successful people that area of enquiry, why are you so successful?, they are a bit slow to respond because they are so immersed in what they do.  Thank goodness, the non-unique elements to Singapore shone through.

·                Students’ attitudes

·                Parents’ attitudes

·                Teacher expectations

However, this is where it became clear that the devil was in the detail.

The intensity of expectation and levels of achievement in the students before the age of 11 is simply staggering.  This is achieved through drill and practice.  Student resilience is a reflection of this success.  Not all children achieve these levels but the fact that at least  1/3 of the student population achieves GCSE level in Maths by the age of 11 suggested their methods of learning are worth consideration.  This is achieved through drilling the basics, regular practice and repetition.

The levels of success do come at a price; the social cost of students not focusing on English or Humanities means that some companies still rely on foreign talent beyond a certain level, due to lack of creative thinking amongst some Singapore students.  Mothers are concerned the extra tuition culture robs young people of some maturation space.  Some evidence suggests like in the West, girls are prone to Mental Health issues, but this is very anecdotal.  However, to suggest that the system is a sweatshop would be inaccurate.  It is always impossible to split education and its approach from its society, in which it exists.  Singapore is a highly energetic, entrepreneurial, successful society - rich, with a can do attitude.  However, it’s young - only 50 years old as a Nation.  It is also very compliant, no chewing gum, litter, etc.  The nation sees itself different from others in the region.  It promotes society and community within an atmosphere of graciousness, dignity and structure and order.

Students are led by students as they chant the school song.  The National parks are full at weekends of young people hiking, canoeing, running, dancing, even praying together in brightly coloured t-shirts with inspirational quotes such a ‘SMART Girls Excel’.  The number of girls exercising was joyful.  I saw not one student amongst thousands who was obese.  The centralised ethos does bring a confidence and a certainty which was impressive.  Students were playful, happy, singing, dancing and cheeky.  They were not repressed.  Harsh sanctions are applied on the very rare occasion of anti-social behaviour but careful, in judgment; you can’t force students to be highly motivated in learning.  The levels of motivation are all encompassing across all elements of life and education; there is no exception.  They love their school.  All around the city you could see groups formed of former school pals still together after they have left school.  Singapore has many religions, ethnic groups and beliefs, but its value systems are shared openly by the majority.

Grace, dignity, community and success through hard work.

When making an analysis in the Maths classroom, this context is vital to consider.

As a western society, we all need to reflect on how we value education.  Education is the number one focus in Singapore and resourced accordingly.  Teachers are highly respected members of the community and very well paid.  The system resourced accordingly.  Of course we can look at Maths Education and try to cherry pick but to pick an element such as text books as our education, and political, leaders are doing currently misses the point.

To highlight the difference of approach in Singapore, they want more creativity in their students so they look at every aspect of their work.  Syllabi have changed with a 2 year lead in period so that teachers can respond correctly.  Training is taking place, but the really interesting aspect is the way in which the streets are now full of magnificent sculptures, bandstands, music and dance areas.  They have festivals, concerts and streets filled with green spaces, which encourage people to enjoy themselves.  It’s seen as a society issue, not just education.  F1 will be staged this week; the streets are closed off for 3 days, stands erected with concerts after the night racing, in one of the most successful business areas in Asia - Can do, will do, and lets enjoy - is there for all to witness.

We are capable of such things; the Olympics proved it, but we need to capture that sense of ‘Can Do’ leadership and pride if we are to match the levels of success.  It ain’t just about textbooks. 

Maths education is outstanding, but it is the students’ attitudes and Society’s expectation of the possible, together with the resources to back it up, that make the difference.  Education is a success story.  It is reported by the media and political leaders in a very positive light.  In the UK we have much to consider if we are to come anywhere near our vision of the leading Nation for Education Excellence.

The textbook shows two very important differences in approach.  As with all subjects, students are expected to keep a learning journal in which they reflect on their work, the challenges and the successes. They’re also asked to reflect different mathematical approaches to create solutions.  See these pages for examples.

On returning to England, we asked our top Maths pathway to complete some exercises from the Year 7 top pathway of a Singapore textbook.  They found it challenging; some found they were unable to complete the work.  This test suggested our  students were possibly around 3 years behind in progress.  The textbook was very well received by the students, and the staff showed great interest too.  They said, “Wow they could teach themselves,” followed by three of the team saying that they had taught themselves at school anyway!  Very interesting. When the Singapore delegation visited Weydon, they felt our students worked just as hard during class time; in fact, the behaviour for learning was better!  However, the expectations of students’ level of study outside of class, was far greater in Singapore.  School went on until 6pm in the evening.  Staff only taught 16 hours per week as compared to 24 hours at Weydon.  Staff made up the extra hours in Singapore with 1:1 tuition.

There is also a big culture of extra tuition in Maths - in the shopping areas - with Singapore parents buying extra teaching in Year 6 to ensure success in the Year 6 (11+ style examination).  This is a high status exam, as it is still in Kent in our own system.  The students have Maths every day for at least an hour throughout high school; however, they don’t follow an EBacc-style curriculum at KS4 as creativity is being encouraged.

Supplementary reading linked to this report includes:

So, this is my research journey.  I am sure that on reading it, many will see errors and dispute some areas.  However, I hope it provides an insight into what I observed and, how we might take the best of the system into our own mathematical education.

John Winter

Headteacher, Weydon School

Filed under: Professional Posted at 12:23

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