The Man Behind The Singapore Math Sensation
TOS: Interest in Singapore Math is exploding in the homeschooling community Welcome to TOS, Jeffery! Can you tell us your background and how you became interested in the program? I understand that your wife, Dawn, is a Singapore native. Is that what sparked the interest, or were there other factors?
JT: Our family lived in Singapore from 1992 to 1997, during which time our daughter began attending public school. When we returned to the U.S., and our daughter continued in the public school system here, we were struck by the lack of a clear mathematics curriculum in her otherwise very good school. We continued to use the Singapore curriculum to supplement her schoolwork, and, because it was so effective, decided to explore the possibility of a market in this country for a curriculum that we knew had put Singapore on the map by their success in the TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study).
TOS: I have read that Singapore students earn top math scores. Do you think it is due to this method?
JT: According to the Singapore Ministry of Education, the success of Singapore’s fourth and eighth grade students in achieving first place in math on TIMSS was in large part the result of the textbook series that their Curriculum Division had put together. There are certainly other factors. These include the high expectations that Asian parents and educators have of students.
TOS: How did you become interested in helping homeschoolers?
JT: As I mentioned earlier, our daughter attends public school, but we supplement her schoolwork with the Singapore math curriculum. She also learns Chinese language from her mother, so we do a fair amount of learning at home that is not connected to her school homework.
Homeschoolers really discovered our company first, and we subsequently did a small amount of Internet advertising aimed at the homeschool market. Our customers who homeschool have been educating us on the movement ever since, and we have a part-time employee who is a homeschooling mom, and an important part of our success with homeschoolers.
TOS: What do you see are the weaknesses in the way mathematics is taught in the United States?
JT: I would say that the greatest challenge facing teachers of mathematics, whether homeschoolers or public or private instructors, is their own tentative grasp of math concepts. Aside from the problem of not enough well-trained teachers, there has been a steady erosion of focus on basic skills in the lower grade levels that started with the New Math. If students are not prepared to go on to algebra and geometry, which they apparently often are not, then this indicates a failure in primary math education. The Singapore curriculum is obviously succeeding where we are failing because the gap between Singapore, at the top, and the U.S. increases a great deal from fourth to eighth grades, with the U.S. falling from 12th place to 28th. (This is in the TIMSS results.) Learning basic skills, often called math facts, is a process in the Singapore curriculum that does not focus on drills, but on understanding, for example, the correlation between multiplication and division. In the first half of second grade, students are introduced to multiplication by becoming familiar with the first part of the multiplication table, followed by the use of the corresponding groups of numbers in performing division. The student will learn that multiplication and division are complementary functions before they go on to learn all the multiplication tables. I think this exemplifies how the Singapore curriculum deals with the great weakness of the U.S. system, lack of basic skills, while promoting the kind of critical thinking skills that U.S. curricula tend to attempt to promote, but often at the expense of basic skills.
The Singapore curriculum focuses a great deal on ‘mental math’, to promote mastery of basic skills and math facts, but also begins early on to introduce word problems that demand logical processes. At lower primary grade levels, most Singapore students are already thinking mathematically.
TOS: That sounds so logical! Is Singapore Math user-friendly for busy homeschooling moms?
JT: The first three years of Primary Mathematics (the 1st-6th grade curriculum) is relatively user-friendly, but by the fourth grade level the instructor needs to understand more sophisticated concepts in order to really assist the student. We are currently creating and publishing a series of teacher’s guides, specifically for users in North America. Only the first grade levels are now available, but the rest will follow. The entire curriculum is formulated to encourage the student to work independently, once a concept has been introduced, so, depending on the student, a homeschooling mom may be able to spend as little twenty minutes on instruction in a given section, coming back twenty or thirty minutes later to check the work and see if more instruction is necessary.
TOS: How did the program get exported to the United States?
JT: We first approached the publishers of Primary Mathematics (grades 1-6) and New Elementary Mathematics (grades 7-10) and gained exclusive rights to distribute in the U.S. and Canada.
TOS: I have read that the U.S. Department of Education is testing the program in some public schools. How did this come about and how do you feel about their interest?
JT: We know that the Singapore Ministry of Education has had meetings with the U.S. Department of Education, and is pleased that Americans are using the curriculum successfully. We have cooperated in every way possible with the study the U.S. Department of Education has contracted to evaluate use of the curriculum in public schools. This study will produce information that facilitates use of the curriculum by more public and private schools.
TOS: Where can we purchase Singapore Math and learn more about the program?
JT: As a consequence of the success we have enjoyed over the past couple of years with both schools and homeschoolers, we have entered into agreements with Singapore publishers whose supplementary titles we now carry, giving U.S. users the option of neatly matched additional work for those who feel they want more drill and practice than the basic curriculum provides. There are also some very good CD-ROMs. Our full line of titles can be purchased online at www.singaporemath.com.
In addition, all of our titles are represented on the website by sample pages, tables of content and other support opportunities.
TOS: Thank you for your time and expertise, Mr. Thomas. You are to be applauded for helping home schoolers continue to strive for excellence.