/ 8 June 2011

Singapore sums it up

Singapore Sums It Up

A methodology to teach maths adopted by the Singapore ministry of education could make a significant impact on the teaching and learning of maths in South Africa, according to Jack Garb, who founded a project that adapts the model to South African schools.

Garb said that, although it would take time, this model might improve the performance of South African learners in future tests such as the crucial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timms), held in four-year cycles. Singapore learners consistently outperformed their counterparts from more than 50 countries in Timms tests.

The tests are highly rated because countries use them to compare and measure learners’ science and maths knowledge and skills. Countries such as the United States, Canada, Namibia, Nigeria and Libya have also adopted the Singaporean approach to improve their learners’ performances. Since then, the term “Singapore maths” has been used to refer to the mathematics -syllabus created by the Singapore education ministry.

Garb, who taught at various schools for 42 years, and had a stint as principal at King David Linksfield Junior Primary, said he started the project four years ago after he “noted the success of Singapore learners in the Timms”.

“I was keen to see the materials and methodology they used. Fortunately, the materials are in English and, therefore, accessible to us,” he said. He said the project “represents publishers in South Africa and also trains teachers to implement the system in schools”.

The last Timms were held in 2007 and, over the years, South African learners have trailed their counterparts from economically impoverished countries on the continent. This gave the education department and the country a negative image and former education minister, Naledi Pandor, placed a moratorium on South Africa’s future participation. This has since been reversed.

South African learners perform poorly in regional maths and literacy tests, and the country has a shortage of graduates in the scarce skills areas, including maths and science. An admirer of Singapore maths himself, Garb said he “developed an interest in the materials used in Singapore to teach maths”.

“There is a correlation between the results and the materials they use. I was fascinated by its success and I realised there was great potential for it to succeed here as well. For instance, they teach in English and this would make it easily accessible to our schools.”

Garb’s initiative, which targets learners from grades one to three, has been implemented in six primary schools in Alexandra and 30 primary schools in Soweto, Orange Farm and Tembisa. The aim was to expand it nationally. Schools did not pay to become part of the programme but have to purchase the teaching materials.

Garb said he was encouraged by the level of support the project has received from districts officials under whose jurisdiction the schools fall. Part of adapting Singapore maths is to customise the materials so that they reflect the South African social milieu and align them to the country’s national curriculum.

Garb has enlisted the services of education NGO ORT to manage the project, and Bidvest provided funding for the Alexandra project. Singapore maths textbooks are designed to have visual impact and to be “child-friendly”. The textbooks use a lot of colour, pictures and diagrams, which makes it easy for children to learn.

“The teaching approach is embedded in the materials, providing a teacher with clear guidelines every step of the way.” South Africa could emulate Singapore but “what we need are good materials and the training of teachers on how to use them and make sure this is being followed through in the classroom”.

Zoliswa Binza, a grade two teacher at Zenzeleni Primary School in Alexandra, was upbeat about the project, which she has been part of since 2008. “Since I became part of Singapore maths I could see changes in the way I teach and the way the learners interact with me.

The textbooks use a lot of colour and bold letters, which help stimulate and sustain the learners’ interest,” said Binza. What she likes most about the project is the constant training teachers receive.

“Not only does this boost our confidence but also makes us to always be on top of our game. It really is a wonderful initiative and I wish other schools could become part of it,” Binza said.