Throwback Thursday – Learning from the East: The benefits of persistence

Over the summer, we thought it would be fun to run some of the most popular posts from the past. When I re-read a post from the past I always take away something different because I am in a different place with my own experience. Perhaps you are as well!


Learning from the East: The benefits of persistence

Originally published 1/13/13

Elementary Math class in Singapore by Cassandra Turner, Singapore Math Teacher, Trainer, CoachWorking with schools, teachers, and parents over the last five years, I’m often asked whether cultural differences can explain why Singapore’s students have led the world in international math standings for 15 years while US students rank no better than mid-pack.

When I visited Singapore in 2007, I learned how the country decided to focus on building strong Singaporean citizens beginning with their earliest education.  The country’s mathematics curriculum (Primary Mathematics) was developed in the early 1980s with this goal in mind. At that time, Singapore’s students were mediocre at math. Within a few years after the launch of the second edition of Primary Mathematics, Singapore’s students topped the international TIMSS study.

To me, it’s quite easy to attribute much of Singapore’s Math success to changes in how it approached education, including, most importantly, the new curriculum. Could Singapore’s culture have changed dramatically between 1984 (when Singapore’s students were ranked 16th of 26 in the Second International Science Study) and 1995 (when they ranked first in the TIMSS study)?

Today, much attention is paid to “Tiger Mothers,” who, in the words of the Economist,

“load their cubs down with extra homework and tuition to make them excel at school.”

This trend seems more recent; it’s also one which, remarkably, Singapore’s current Prime Minister wants to curtail (http://www.economist.com/node/21563354).

A more subtle consideration concerns expectations; how do parents and teachers ask students to engage in schoolwork?

I had a driveway moment this fall when NPR ran a story (http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning) titled, “Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.” The piece focuses on the importance of persistence to a student’s learning. Reporter Alix Spiegel cites several examples, then gets to the heart of the issue:

“For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.”

Reporter Spiegel then chooses to NOT to choose between East and West. In this silence, though, I believe there is a teachable moment for those of us in the West.

In training sessions with teachers, it is not uncommon to encounter resistance when I advise (insist) that teachers give students the opportunity to really work on math problems. This can be a difficult skill for teachers to learn.

And if teachers are inclined to want to move their class along before giving students a chance to truly work the math, parents can worse. They are unaccustomed to and uncomfortable at seeing their children struggle, unable to finish their home enjoyment (aka homework). Parents sometimes can be too quick to either give their kids a pass (well, you have tried, haven’t you?) or demand an explanation of the teacher (why can’t my child do the homework?).

Here’s where I find that it’s critical to have laid the groundwork and properly set expectations. Teachers need patience (whew, do teachers ever need patience!). They must let their students work through problems, even if they end up struggling and having to start over. And parents need to appreciate that homework (honestly completed or struggled with) can be the best feedback loop for teachers.

Pointing at cultural differences to rationalize a lack of math proficiency in many of our students serves no one. Instead, I think there’s a lot to be gained by asking that western students work a bit more to earn some of the praise they frequently receive.

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Great Math News from City Springs School In Baltimore

For the last year, I’ve been working with City Springs Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. Here’s a short description from the school’s website:

City Springs Elementary/Middle School is a neighborhood charter school operated by the Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP). We are a conversion charter school, which means we were an already existing Baltimore City Public School that was taken over by an outside operator to bring innovative and research-based curriculum and other programs to enhance the school. To learn more about BCP, click here.

City Springs logoInitially, the school was seeking help with its Middle School math. After I made a pair of on-site visits at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, Dr. Rhonda Richetta, Principal of City Springs, decided to adopt Singapore’s Primary Mathematics Common Core Edition.

I’ve returned to City Springs periodically this year to provide continuing support as the school’s teachers and coaches adopted a Singapore Math® curriculum. The school is making remarkable progress, and I want to share stories written by some of City Springs’ dedicated teachers about the students’ growth during the year.

I’ve clipped an excerpt from each story with teachers’ observations and very valuable insights about the program and why it is working so well for their students. Please click on the links to read complete stories from the school’s website. I love the photos of students showing off their skills and having fun with math!

Ms. Schoenleber: Introducing Singapore Math  (November 2015) “Classroom manipulatives have helped our kids get better at problem solving and justifying their answers for tough math problems.”

Ms. Hagemann: It’s More than Just a Game (November 2015) “One way to get stronger in mental math is by use math-based games to reinforce basic concepts and encourage mathematical thinking…Students in Ms. Hageman’s class love mental math games!”

Ms. Smith: Moving Ahead in Math (February 2016) “Singapore Math has been very challenging but it has also been very rewarding, and they have especially loved the use of manipulatives in class.”

Ms. Barry: Stepping Up to the Ratio Challenge (February 2016) “Ratio problems can be really tricky. Sometimes these multi-step problems are so challenging that we spend 15, 30, or even 45 minutes on one problem! Our students love to rise to the challenge, and have grown so much in their math skills with these complex problems.”

Ms. Barry’s also class wanted to challenge readers to solve a ratio problem they worked on. How did you do?

Ms. Lineberry:  Introducing Fractions  (May 2016) “At first, we struggled to figure fractions out. Trying to wrap our minds around halves and fourths proved difficult at first. Things became a little clearer after we started using “manipulatives,” hands-on objects used to illustrate math concepts.”

Ms. Williams: Knowing All the Angles (May 2016) “Students began their geometrical journey by learning how to measure angles…Later, they will start learning to measure geometric angles made by two lines emanating out of the center of a circle, and eventually beginning exploring the complex world of geometry formulas.”

Working with City Springs has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable assignments of my career. Teachers have embraced the challenge of adopting a new program and students are making wonderful progress. I can’t wait to see their growth in Year Two! Thank You, City Springs!

[Full disclosure: My work assignment at City Springs is contracted through Staff Development for Educators.] Scridb filter

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.

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Northport Elementary builds Critical Thinking with Math AND the Arts

Here’s an outstanding school I work with that is doing wonderful things with Singapore Mathematics…and now the Arts!

 I’ll share more about what these stellar students achieved in mathematics in coming weeks!

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Singapore Math® News and Views

number bondsThe Singapore Math® program recently has been in the news in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. Several articles focus on the results of the 2012 Programme for International ­Student Assessment (PISA) which was released in December.

Can the Singapore method help your children learn maths?

Shortly after the results of the PISA exam were announced in December, BBC Skillwise ran a piece that explained some of the features of math in Singapore:

Singapore teaches maths better than most countries including the UK, according to international rankings for secondary pupils.

The difference starts at an early age.

There are many reasons but one key factor is its step-by-step approach that can be used at home or in the classroom.

Canada urged to demand same standards in education as in hockey

From the Calgary Herald, February 19, 2014: Sliding scores in math, science, literacy spark alarm.

Canada’s former deputy prime minister, John Manley, spoke at a symposium focused on Alberta’s ongoing Inspiring Education during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Manley, who now serves as president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, asked:

“How can we be satisfied with 13th place in math when we’re not satisfied with second place in hockey?”

Whitby school borrows ‘world-best’ teaching methods

The Toronto Star reports that students at the Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby, Ontario, are learning math the Singapore way.

Headmaster Adam de Pencier is pursuing the “world best” curriculum  by cherry-picking the leading teaching methods from around the globe:

“If we believe curriculum drives a school, shouldn’t we try to choose the best curriculum, whether it’s from Whitby, Walla Walla, or Wellington?” asked de Pencier, who had math teacher Jessica Semkin train in Singapore math last summer.

Semkin said the Singapore approach “slows down the pace of learning to make sure there is a mastery of skills. With Singapore math, we spent about two weeks on multiplying fractions, instead of a day or two, and then coming back to it later.”

Gill St. Bernard school receives a visit from Singapore math leader

Nine years ago, Gill St. Bernard School piloted the Singapore Math® curriculum in second grade. It quickly expanded; by 2005, the curriculum was in use throughout the Lower and Middle school.

When Lower School Director Peggy Campbell-Rush visited Singapore in 2012, she met Yeap Ban Har, Ph.D, an internationally recognized Singapore math leader. On April 16, 2014, Dr. Ban Har visited Gill St. Bernard School to conduct professional development for the school’s K-6 teachers.

Finally, an OPINION piece that urges consideration of a more rigorous math curricula such as that used in Singapore:

Save kids from Fuzzy Math

A February 3, 2014, New York Post Opinion piece by Naomi Schaefer Riley, includes this revelation:

The education establishment frowns on anything so simple as adopting the methods of high-performing countries…[I]t insists we spend decades and millions of dollars to evaluate each one.

 

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