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Singapore comes top of the class

A recent trip by South African teachers to Singapore exposed the Asian tiger’s unique method of teaching mathematics.

With the help of the Singapore High Commission to South Africa, Bernard Baker, our team from the Waterkloof House Preparatory School visited St Andrew’s Junior School, an Anglican all-boys school, and Temasek Primary School. At both schools we were given presentations on Singaporean teaching and learning approaches.

Singapore is known for its top performance in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timms), an international assessment of mathematics and science knowledge of learners in grades four and eight. A teaching method that sets Singaporean maths apart from other curricula is the emphasis on visual images and illustrations in lessons. In addition, Singapore maths presents a smaller number of basic lessons but the lessons are presented in greater detail.

The explanations are easy and make use of graphs. The problems range from basic calculations and mental maths to multi-step problems that require logic and concentration. Singaporean maths presents computer and internet lessons as part of the curriculum to prepare young people to work with today’s technology.

In a nutshell, Singaporean maths is about learners solving problems, thinking, sharing their ideas and learning from one another. Abstract, practical and factual understanding is developed through problem-solving and carefully planned practice. As a result, pupils learn how to think out of the box and enjoy mathematics.


We also looked at the classroom of the future, catering for children who use new technology. Their grasp of this new world makes the traditional “chalk and talk” teaching we experienced as meaningless as the wooden-framed slates our grandparents -carried to school. Historically, Singapore emerged from World War II and Japanese occupation as a poor malarial swamp, devoid of natural resources. All it had was its people and their desire to improve themselves.

The visionary Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, capitalised on this during his 30 years in office. His autocratic style was necessary to establish a country perched at the foot of the Malayan peninsula and steer it away from dependency on its bigger neighbour. Like the other Asian tigers, Lee emphasised education, building a synergy between government departments and engendering discipline and respect for authority.

Singaporean education has evolved into one that emphasises collaborative work and critical thinking skills. Children are exposed to an inquisitive learning approach that stimulates thinking. The classes we saw were filled with noise and discussion, with pupils challenged and motivated by the interactive process.

Teachers have studied more than merely the methods of teaching children: they have an intimate understanding of the needs of modern children and what makes them tick. Like their charges, the teachers have never stopped learning. For example, home-based learning was developed in response to the recent threat of swine flu.

Schools need contingency plans in case they are forced to stop formal classes to control outbreaks of disease. So Singaporean schools close periodically to test their home-based learning systems. These virtual workspaces help teachers to extend the delivery of teaching and materials online to remote students through real-time interactive sessions. Pupils can learn at any time and anywhere beyond the confines of the classroom and because they are supported by new-age devices and wireless technology.

Singaporeans are good at solving problems, thinking ahead and discovering potential challenges in the future. They incorporate technology into every aspect of their teaching. We were intrigued by the DynaMice application that runs on Multipoint, developed by Microsoft. It has multiple mice on one PC. No internet is required.

With this innovative concept, teachers can incorporate interactivity in teaching and learning. This allows every student to participate in class activities at the same time. Teachers have continuous in-service training and their pupils make obligatory trips out of Singapore to broaden their outlook.

As Dr Su Guaning, the president of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said: “Inspirational teachers leave a legacy in touching the lives of the students they educate … Teachers engage the hearts and minds of their pupils. They bridge the gap between knowledge acquisition and passion for learning.

They are the mentors, guardians, coaches, counsellors, friends and confidants all rolled into one.”Becoming a teacher in Singapore starts immediately after high school and before tertiary level. The ministry of education recruits and employs school-leavers as trainee teachers.

They are sent for pre-service training, with full pay, for up to two years. Their tuition fees are paid. Once trained, teachers are required to do 100 hours of professional development each year and the ministry of education pays for it.

The system involves extensive parental involvement. We met mothers doing duty as librarians and playing other supportive roles as a precondition to having their children at the school of their choice.

“Our education system must prepare our students for life, not as a short sprint but as a marathon. Some do exceptionally well and cross the finish line ahead of everyone. Some take longer but they, too, finish and are winners in their own right. Our task as educators must be to prepare each child well for the big journey ahead,” says Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen.

Elaine Cornish is the Junior Prep head of department at Waterkloof House Preparatory School, Pretoria

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Elaine Cornish
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