Our Journey to Singapore: A Singapore Math Adoption Success Story

Beth Curran Preschool – 6th Grade Math Department Chair, St. Anne’s-Belfield School Singapore Math Teacher and Trainer

Beth Curran

For some time, I’ve wanted to share stories of schools that have successfully implemented a Singapore Math curriculum.

To present the first such case study, I asked my colleague Beth Curran to summarize the adoption process at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, an independent Pre-K to 12 school in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Please contact me if your school has a story to contribute.

 


 Our Journey to Singapore

by Beth Curran
Preschool – 6th Grade Math Department Chair, St. Anne’s-Belfield School
Singapore Math Teacher and Trainer

stab_logoIt all began with a strategic plan.  In 2011, St. Anne’s-Belfield School released its 2011-2016 Strategic Plan.  The first of six goals focused on teaching and learning in the 21st century.  Key elements to this goal included teaching with depth rather than breadth, teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills, improving the quality of our computation, and ensuring that our pedagogy reflects researched based best practices.  The Action Plan that followed gave direct mention to Singapore Math as a curriculum to explore.

While teachers felt strongly that the students were leaving our Lower School (grades Kindergarten through four) very well prepared for Middle School (grades five through eight), we had to ask a tough question; could we be doing better?

Why Singapore Math?

As the Lower School Math Coordinator at the time, I was charged with taking a critical look at the Lower School’s current math curriculum and learning all I could about Singapore Math.  The more I learned, the more I was convinced that Singapore Math would be a great match for us.  It was almost as if the Strategic Plan was written with Singapore Math in mind.  The curriculum teaches concepts to mastery, focusing on depth rather than breadth.  Critical thinking and problem-solving are embedded within the curriculum, not taught as a stand-alone unit.  Concepts are introduced, practiced, and applied immediately to solve problems.  Computation and numeracy are also a major focus.  Check, check, and check!

Learning Village at St. Anne's-Belfield School

Learning Village at St. Anne’s-Belfield School

Not all of the homeroom teachers were as enthusiastic as I was.  It was a daunting task convincing them that learning a new math curriculum, on the tails of learning a new writing curriculum, was a good thing.  St. Anne’s-Belfield’s Head of School, being the visionary that he is, saw an opportunity to not only implement a new math curriculum, but to change the way math instruction is delivered at the Lower School level.  If we were going to ask our teachers to become Singapore Math specialists, why not hire and train dedicated math teachers?  And that’s just what he did.  Four math teachers were hired to deliver math instruction and these dedicated math specialists would co-teach math with the homeroom teacher taking on a supporting role.  This had an added benefit of cutting our student to teacher ratio in half during math class.

With the faculty in place and the Primary Mathematics materials ordered, we set out to train our dedicated math teachers in Kindergarten through sixth grade.  We contracted with Cassy Turner, Singapore Math Specialist and Trainer to work with our math teachers for an intensive one-week boot camp.  We learned the ins and outs of mental math and the bar model.  We asked questions, practiced, collaborated, practiced, designed an implementation schedule, and practiced.  Cassy’s enthusiasm and extensive knowledge left us feeling confident to tackle the upcoming year.  We knew professional development was crucial to a successful implementation and with that in mind we continued our relationship with Cassy throughout the year.  She made three more trips to the school, observing and teaching lessons and providing her guidance to keep us on track.

Successes and Challenges

Fast forward to today.  We are now a year and a half into our implementation. Our students are stronger problem-solvers than ever before.  Their computational skills have shown marked improvement.  Their overall sense of number and place value has increased.  Our students are confident and persevere through challenging problems.

We have done a lot of things really well.  We understood and placed value on professional development.  This is not a curriculum that can be picked up and taught from the Teacher’s Guides.  Most teachers did not learn math the way that a Singapore Math curriculum is taught.  Training is key.  If not trained, teachers will revert to teaching math the way they learned it.  Having a successful plan for ongoing professional development is critical to a successful implementation.

We put value on mathematics instruction at the Lower School level.  We saw the need for math specialists and took a huge financial risk to improve our instruction.

We implemented the curriculum in Kindergarten through sixth grade.  We felt so strongly about the benefits of the curriculum that we knew that even one or two years of exposure would be better than none.  This has been one of the most challenging hurdles of our implementation.  We worked with Cassy to anticipate and develop a plan for “back-teaching” missing skills.   In grades three through six, this plan guided us through our first year and fortunately, Kindergarteners through second grade students benefited from needing very minimal “back-teaching.”  Developing a relationship with a knowledgeable Singapore Math consultant is crucial.

If there was an area for improvement, it was parent communication and education.  We hosted a parent night early into the school year to give parents an overview of the curriculum and a brief introduction to some of the components that are unique to Singapore Math.  That wasn’t enough.  Parents didn’t learn math the way their children were now learning it. The focus of Singapore Math is to develop conceptual understanding before learning the mathematical steps or procedures.  Parents need to understand and support the school in teaching math this way.  Parent education is not an option; it is a requirement of a successful implementation.  In our second year, we designed a plan for parent chats spread throughout the year with topics including fact practice, mental math strategies, and bar modeling as a tool for problem-solving.  Your professional development provider or consultant can assist you in designing a parent education program that meets the needs of your school.

Our journey continues and our students are stronger math students as a result.  The first year was clearly the most challenging.  Our commitment to professional development, perseverance, and acceptance of this unfamiliar approach to teaching math has guided us and we are confident that each passing year will continue to confirm the benefits of teaching a Singapore Math curriculum.

Implementation challenges: It’s not necessarily the curriculum

Sometimes the strategies used in the Singapore Math materials look different. Number bonds, bar models, place value charts, arrays and area models can be unfamiliar to parents. Most schools adopting Primary Mathematics host Parent Nights to walk parents through the new materials, the program and to share why the school decided to switch from their old curriculum.

I’ve done dozens of these parent nights and common concerns run through the questions. After a presentation and Q & A parent session this week, a parent approached me about her son’s home enjoyment that afternoon.

“How am I expected to help my fourth grader?” she asked, “This Singapore Math is so different.”

She opened her son’s 4A workbook and showed me the problems she couldn’t help her son with:

Unfortunately for this parent, there’s nothing “Singaporean” about order of operations.

She couldn’t help her son because she didn’t remember elementary school math. In fact, she had never heard the term “Order of Operations”. I tried, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” something many adults were taught back in the day… Nope, that drew a blank as well.

After I explained what the order of operations is, I offered the parent two pieces of advice.

  1. Include a note with her son’s home enjoyment, something along the lines of “We struggled with these problems.” The teacher needs to know this. Home enjoyment is practice for your student and provides feedback for their teacher. The teacher needs to know if the lesson taught that day at school could be completed individually by the student that night at home. If not, there was a breakdown somewhere.

This parent note tells the teacher a couple of things:

  • The student was able to complete the first two parts of the assignment that included problems with two operations, but couldn’t work the final exercise where the problems had three operations.
  • Something was lost between the teacher’s lesson and this student. Was he in the bathroom? Did the teacher’s lesson and guided practice not include three operations? Are there attention issues? Did the student just not “get it” and not ask questions? Many things could have created this disconnect. Was it a single student, or are there more that struggled?
  • This parent may not be able to help her son with 4th-grade math.
  1. Pick up a copy of a book on elementary mathematics. One of my favorites is Arithmetic For Parents: A Book for Grownups about Children’s Mathematics.  In the foreword, the author includes insights from his time in an elementary classroom:

Elementary mathematics isn’t simple at all. It has depth and beauty.

The book is written for parents that want to be an active participant in their child’s studies, as well as the “reader who wishes to return to his childhood mathematics, from a different angle.”

Good math teaching is just good math teaching. While there are some differences in the strategies used in the Singapore books, teaching math so students understand the concepts as well as master the algorithm or rule is the goal.

Do you help your child with their home enjoyment? What happens when you are fuzzy on the concepts your child is learning?

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