Learning Singapore math in Henderson Co. first took hard work by teachers; previous math approach "made cooks...this makes chefs"

Henderson Gleaner, Aug. 31, 2014

Singapore math forced teachers to
learn new way to teach
by Beth Smith

The use of Singapore math in Henderson County’s curriculum is doing something unexpected — it’s teaching the teachers.

Some local educators say the Singaporean method for mathematics — introduced here in 2010 — seemed daunting at first, but has since bolstered their enthusiasm for the subject, as well as transformed their approach in other areas of teaching.

“I’m not someone at the beginning who said, ‘this is the way to go,’” said Evelyn Cummings, a third-grade teacher at East Heights Elementary School. “I like to try it first. I’ll take it, and I’ll look at it. I’ll teach it, touch it and get comfortable with it, and then I’ll see if I like it.

“Once I really tried it on, I loved it. I really do see real thinkers coming out of my room.”

“It’s taught me so much,” said Dana Stauffer, a kindergarten teacher at Spottsville Elementary School. “I can do mental math now, and I never could before. I always had to have paper (and pencil) and carry my one and all of that. Singapore math makes (students and teachers) able to picture and gives them something solid to visualize.”

At the heart of the Singaporean approach to math is problem solving. This math curriculum doesn’t focus as much on memorizing procedures, but understanding numbers and how they interact, officials said.

It’s the how and the why, Cummings said.

Educators said this isn’t how mathematics has been taught in the United States.

Cummings and Stauffer, both veteran teachers, said the first year of Singapore math was difficult for everyone.

“Training took a long time,” Cummings said. “It took us four years to be where we are now. Next year will be better and the next year will be better.”

“The first year was hard,” she said. “They trained us the best they could, but the best way to learn this is to just get in there and do it.”

“I had to go by the book,” she said. “I hated that I had to say just what (the book) said.”

Eventually, Cummings said she grew comfortable enough with the material to “make it my own.”
But in the beginning, she said, “We had to take it home and read it every night before the next day.”

“I’m lucky to be in a district where we started it from kindergarten and moved it on,” Cummings said. “My students (who have had it since kindergarten), as long as we follow the program, they’re ready to do what they need to do.”

“I thought at the beginning, that my kids were going to bottom out because the curriculum moved so slow,” Stauffer said. “I would never have spent so much time on concepts such as ‘same and different.’ We skipped so much because we thought the kids understood it.”

Then something happened that “blew our minds,” Stauffer said and illustrated for some of the Spottsville teachers the benefit of slowing down.

“On Lesson 2, the kids had to hold up two fingers. We said ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ They said ‘two.’ At this point, before Singapore math, we’d have skipped ahead,” she said.

“But in Singapore math they told us to hold up two different fingers in a different way and ask if this was two. And every child in every class said no, it wasn’t two,” she said.

“That’s what caught us. It had the most impact on all of us. That’s what’s missing,” Stauffer said. “It’s assuming kids understand something because they can memorize. The hardest thing for us was understanding that slowing down was OK. We always crammed knowledge at them ... but you can’t learn to problem solve with new material.”

“To problem-solve, it has to be with things you already know. It took us a lot of adjusting to the fact that we aren’t expecting them to do a lot on their own, but we’re taking the time to expose them to different ways of thinking.”

“The students are seeing there’s not just one way to do something, and they have to explain it and give their answers,” she said.

“We would not have ever done things like that in the past,” Stauffer said. “If they couldn’t master it, we wouldn’t teach it.”

“I don’t think it’s the lessons, that makes (Singapore math) an awesome program,” she said. “It’s the philosophy behind it — thinking mathematically.”

It’s made me change the way I teach ... It makes me think about kids as a whole and to teach them how to learn and how to think,” Stauffer said.

“Before I would teach my students a process, instead of problem solving,” Cummings said.

“Now, we’re teaching these kids to be problem-solvers,” Cummings said. “Back in the day, all I’d really have to teach is computation. Making sure they could multiply and memorize; that they could add and subtract up to 10,000 ... We have basically the same things, but (then) they didn’t have to problem solve to get (the answers). Now they have to problem solve ... I have them restate the problem solving.

Cummings said since implementing Singapore math she has seen a change in her students’ attitudes toward the subject.

“I always ask my students what their favorite subject is and almost always the answer is math,” she said. “I see kids where they can’t wait to do math ... they’re really excited about it.”

“Singapore math teaches kids to think mathematically instead of mechanics and memorization,” Stauffer said. “I like to think of it like this, the way you think of a cook and a chef. You can be a very good cook. If you have a recipe to follow someone can follow it and the food will taste very good” and they will be a good cook, if they have the recipe.

“A chef can take mystery ingredients, that don’t seem to go together and make gourmet meals,” she said. A chef understands the ingredients and how they work together, Stauffer said.
“Our math in the past made good cooks. They could follow recipes and could do math as long as they had the recipe to follow.”

“Singapore Math makes chefs,” she said. “They can take anything and figure it out and make it work, because they understand it.”
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