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Singapore is a maths success story, but here’s why South Africa should not adopt its education model


Michael Workman is a retired educator. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

The Singaporean government is very autocratic and uses a top-down approach to teaching and learning, and because Singapore is such a small nation-state, monitoring can be implemented in well-resourced schools by highly trained teachers, most of whom are subject specialists.

I was listening to a discussion on 702 radio about mathematics and in particular Singapore maths, which once again has been ranked number one in the world out of 48 participating countries by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). South Africa (SA) not surprisingly, came last.

To this end, I would like to explore certain issues that are crucial to any new curriculum initiative being introduced into education, with particular relevance to South Africa.

First, we are dealing with two totally different countries. Singapore has a population of about 5.7 million, and the South African population is 10 times greater – at the last count, our population was estimated at 60 million.

The Singaporean government is very autocratic and uses a top-down approach to teaching and learning, and because Singapore is such a small nation-state, monitoring can be implemented in well-resourced schools by highly trained teachers, most of whom are subject specialists. Singapore also has a centralised system of education and as such has a national curriculum for mathematics.

The Ministry of Education Report allows for close monitoring of the mathematics curriculum. Furthermore, the children are tested and retested and tested again to make sure they understand the topics or “concepts” covered. Before they write for Timss, they are thoroughly trained, just to ensure they will not struggle in the examination. They also attend extra lessons in maths in the afternoons when school is finished.

Second, Singapore draws its knowledge from the empirical/traditional paradigm characterised by a top-down teaching methodology, which is linear and objective. The teacher in this paradigm is regarded as the fountain of knowledge and as such transfers his/her understanding of knowledge to the child. The second, alternative form of knowledge creation is based on learning being more interactive. It assumes that knowledge is developed through a process, it is more subjective, and there is more than a single truth. Knowledge is unique to everyone and becomes more of a reality as it is discussed by children, through a process of facilitation.

Third, Singapore has become a very stressed nation. Over the years, the people of Singapore have begun to experience more stress because of the pressure they are under in preparing their children for Timss and trying to get them into the best high schools. So much so that the suicide average is more than one person every day. This has now reached 10% of the total population every year. This is very typical of most of the eastern countries, which are very competitive. But at what cost?

It is such a shame to use children as objects that can be manipulated for the sake of a world rating. I am pleased to note, however, that most of the eastern countries, including Singapore, have recognised the tremendous stress that is building within their populations, and their subject advisers are demanding that all extra lessons in maths must stop. 

Fourth, South Africa is a country that is polarised between extremes, with 6% of the country being wealthy with well-resourced schools, while 94% of the population is living in poverty. This makes South Africa the most inequitable country in the world. Education is going backwards instead of forwards. Unlike Singapore, South Africa does not have many well-qualified teachers who would be prepared to teach in some of the crime-ridden communities, where there is little infrastructure. And to make things even worse, schools are regularly looted and vandalised.

What is required in South Africa is an evaluation of all schools, state and private, to establish weaknesses and strengths. The findings could then be used to identify failing schools. It must be emphasised that the school is being evaluated, and not the child. Once completed, those schools that are not doing well would be placed on a linear programme whereby the basics in maths, and English, would be taught by quality teachers until such time as a thorough understanding of these subjects is achieved (crucial in the future global world).

Inasmuch as the curriculum could be changing to accommodate the 4IR with science and technology being introduced, the new curriculum could also be used to help teachers develop professionally. Communities need to get involved in the process as well – after all, the school will ultimately serve the community. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that the ultimate success of this new educational plan would rest on the shoulders of the community. Their involvement is vital.

This is an extremely simplistic view of all the issues and problems in education that South Africa faces today. There are many more factors that have to be considered, such as the purpose and nature of change, contextual issues, underpinning values, social justice, equity and equality, implementation process, time frames, quality teachers… the list goes on.

So far, South Africa does not have the best record when it comes to educational change. But with competent teachers and stakeholders involved, who knows what SA might achieve? DM


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  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Unfortunately I am unconvinced by the four point argument. Yes, unrealistic pressure to perform in TIMMS is unhealthy, and yes Singapore is small and wealthy and and and. But what is wrong with a bit of encouragement for our learners to understand mathematics and the sciences? Why must we rather have life skills, communication, dance, drama and social studies as our focus?
    I do agree with your conclusion, but the road to that “who knows what SA might achieve” dream is fraught with insurmountable cultural and systemic hurdles. In short, to quote Oscar van Heerden out of context “forget it – it ain’t gonna happen”.

    • Ulrike Hill says:

      I disagree. We are a culturally rich country and I believe cultural subjects are important not only for the child who struggles with maths and science. Furthermore, there is a link between maths, music and language development so cultural subjects are still important in the curriculum. A child who performs well in maths tends to be musically inclined as well. There is no doubt that South Africa needs to focus on the teaching of maths and science and teachers must be subject specialists. What our education system needs is strong leadership; from the education minister down to the heads of school as well as executive committees.

  • Mary Reynolds Reynolds says:

    Have I interpreted the suicide figures that you give correctly, or is my maths up the spout? Above, you seem to be saying that 10% of the population commits suicide every year! That (fortunately) doesn’t tally with the other figures you give (namely that on average, over one person per day commits suicide, i.e. over 365 people annually, in a population of about 5.7 million). From the latter figures, I calculate that about 0.006% of the population commits suicide annually.

    • Andrew Wright says:

      Interesting – maths is so easy!!

    • Calamity Jane says:

      Yes, this claim didn’t strike me as a great advert for facilitative learning (!)

      I teach in a UK institution which admits many undergraduates and graduates from Singapore, and IMO the results of their educational system are astonishing. Nor do these students strike me as unusually stressed – in fact they have the quiet confidence that comes from genuine expertise.

  • Tom Hamilton says:

    Mike, I respect your perspective, but it is overly simplistic. The education system is vastly complex and there is more than one variable that needs attention for remedy. Having worked with the Royal Bafokeng Nation in the recent past, a community that has invested hugely in the upliftment of public education, I can attest to the complexity of the issue. Placing “quality teachers” in public schools is not an easy proposition. When there, how long do they stay? Who replaces them when they leave?

  • David Wolfe says:

    The SA Institute of Physics is well aware of the severity of the problem in maths and science. We have instituted a programme of teaching the TEACHERS of physical science in an effort to increase both their knowledge of the subject and also to introduce some more modern techniques of teaching. Some of these involved the sort of learner involvement mentioned in the article. Not easy in very large classes but, with a little patience, it can begin to work. And it provides a much better grasp of the subject. We are now working in 5 provinces and hope to expand further.

  • Ewan James says:

    Resource challenges here are daunting, but my father saw “it” working in rural SA schools 30 years ago – where a school was somtimes a tree &”resources” were chalk, bottle tops, and a new approach). Some schools turned 80% failure rates into 80% pass rates. Back then “it” was based on the student-focused approaches coming from UK (Cockroft I think?) – the same roots as Singapore maths. Interestingly though, the implementation of these roots my father witnessed in SA back then was heavily dependent on the SECOND mode of knowledge creation you mentioned, where alternate views were shared and discussed. Through this method a child makes the concepts part of their language, and that’s what makes all the difference. (horribly oversimplified, sorry)
    From what I can tell of the SA work, one key success factor was actually to obliterate the top down approach, which separates the teacher, and makes it unsafe to share & discuss different versions of understanding & misunderstanding. Without a student-focused space to learn, free from ridicule or fear of failure, it didnt’t work as well. Ironic really, given where Singapore ended up it seems, but my point is really, not to be overly distracted by resources constraints. If we could focus on the teachers & adopt teaching methods that actually work we can succeed dispite the vast array of challenges.

  • PART 1/3
    Some inaccuracies & misconceptions that need to be addressed in this article.
    1.Over 80 countries internationally have opted to adopt a Singaporean approach in Maths & Science, both developed & developing nations with the aspiration to see results improve & teachers having stronger mathematical foundations. These include countries as diverse as the USA, UK, Pakistan & Nigeria. The size of Singapore is not a relevant factor in the applicability of the educational approach to other countries.
    2.Contrary to what is suggested, there are no subject specialist teachers at primary level in Singapore.
    3.There is no evidence in the Singapore Maths material to support the assertion that “children are tested, retested and tested again”. On the contrary Singapore stresses that memorisation of facts, formulae & tedious computation inhibit the education of children. To assert they are “trained for TIMMs” shows a particular lack of understanding of the Singaporean education system & the TIMMs assessments. A survey of the type of questions in the TIMMs assessments shows that it is not possible to train children for the TIMMs. The questions on the TIMMs require understanding of concepts, application of skills, as well as problem solving strategies. These are not skills that can be coached in anticipation of an assessment such as TIMMS. These are skills & strategies that are deeply ingrained in the Singaporean educational pedagogy & methodology.

    • PART 2/3

      4.Suggesting that teaching Singapore Maths uses a “top-down teaching methodology” where the teacher is the regarded as a “fountain of knowledge” is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of Maths teaching in Singapore. The teacher is in fact a facilitator. Group work, collaboration, exploration & communication are emphasised in the classroom. The concrete-pictorial-abstract paradigm that is fundamental to Singapore Maths requires participation of children in the classroom. The Ministry of Education of Singapore’s vision in as early as 2005 was “Teach Less, Learn More” – giving teachers direction to learn more from their observations of how the children were exploring & learning. This completely contradicts a “top-down” approach. Singapore’s Education system has been acknowledged as amongst the best in the world. This problem-solving curriculum caters for struggling learners with embedded remediation work as well as extension & enrichment work for advanced learners. Singapore Maths is about ensuring understanding basic key concepts thoroughly at the pace suited for learners, before increasing the level of complexity.

      According to research done by the National Institute of Education (NIE Singapore) 74% learners like learning Maths. The research further shows that the majority of Singapore secondary students believe that mathematics is useful (91%), important (89%), & learning mathematics is not wasting their time (84%).

      • PART 3/3

        Radical change is necessary. There needs to be a willingness to change. Teachers need ongoing professional development & the support of world-class materials. Our experience has shown that use of these world-class materials in the most underprivileged communities has resulted in improvement of both teachers & learners.

        South Africa is consistently amongst the lowest ranked in TIMMS – Singapore consistently leads. The objective of adopting Singapore Maths is not about aspiring to be the top of TIMMS but it is to be able to migrate to become an industrialised nation with problem solvers, critical/creative thinkers who can be prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

        Clearly, we have a great deal to learn from Singapore.

        Jack Garb
        • Former Principal for 30 years at various independent schools; Primary School Maths Teacher with over 50 year’s experience.
        • Introduced & established Kumon Maths in South Africa
        • Introduced & established Singapore Maths in South Africa
        • CEO of Jade Education – Singapore Maths South Africa

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