Singapore Math Comes to South Orange - Maplewood Schools

New method emphasizes concrete, hands-on experiences in lieu of rote memorization.


Kindergarten through 2nd grade students in the South Orange - Maplewood School District (SOMSD) will experience a different approach to learning math this year, as the district implements Math in Focus: Singapore Math.

The term “Singapore Math” refers to the coherent progression and specific instructional strategies used by all teachers in Singapore, a country that consistently scores at the top on international math tests.  

The district announced the new program to the community last year. It replaces the former curriculum, Everyday Math. Math in Focus will be implemented in grades 3-5 in the 2013-2014 school year. 

The program adds concrete or hands-on experiences to the math curriculum, rather than emphasizing only abstract learning using memorization. Students will use hands-on materials and visual models before moving on to abstract symbols.

According to the district, this emphasis on visualization -- wherein children "see" math in their minds -- has made students in Singapore highly adept at problem solving. 

In an article posted on the SOMSD website, Kimberly Beane, Supervisor of Mathematics and Science for Grades K-5, explained several key differences parents might notice.

  • Instruction is concentrated on fewer topics and teaches them to a deeper level of understanding.  Students will spend a lot of time on topics that are most foundational to future math learning: number sense, place value, and computation.  Calculators are gone and replaced by mastery of facts and mental math.


  • Written computation uses traditional methods.  Students are explicitly taught to add and subtract using the traditional right to left columns.  They will learn alternate strategies for mental math, but written computation follows traditional procedures.


  • It starts out slowly but ends with advanced rigor. The beginning of each school year spends a lot of time developing deep understanding of numbers and place value.  Have patience!  By the end of 1st grade students will be doing 2-digit addition and subtraction that has always been taught in the middle of 2nd grade.  That rigor continues in other grades, with each grade learning math that used to be taught in higher grade levels.


  • Reasoning, problem solving, and mental math are taught explicitly starting in first grade.  Bar modeling, a highly versatile and powerful problem solving method, is taught explicitly starting in second grade.  Bar models allow young students to solve algebraic situations using a visual diagram instead of abstract symbols.  Problem solving in Singapore Math is significantly more rigorous than traditional U.S. problems.

All elementary school teachers received 25 hours of extra training in the new program last year and will receive an additional 25 hours this year. 

Math in Focus is used successfully in other New Jersey school districts, including Old Bridge and Edison -- both of which showed improved student test scores, according to Beane.

Math in Focus: Singapore Math (2013) is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  More information, including videos for parents, can be found on their website. Two sample problems are included below.


Sample Grade 2 Problem


Punch bowl A has a capacity of 8 liters.  Punch bowl B has double the capacity of Punch bowl A.  Both are filled to the brim with punch.  Punch from both punch bowls is then equally poured into 6 bottles.  Find the volume of punch in each bottle.


(Math in Focus Chapter 16)


Sample Grade 5 Problem


Britta bought some carrots and apples for $24.80.  A carrot and an apple cost. $0.90 all together.  She bought more carrots than apples.  The cost of the extra number of carrots was $6.80.  How many apples did Britta buy?


(Math in Focus Chapter 9)

Thanks for posting this. As a mother of a kindergartener this year... we were just introduced to this method last night at Back to School night.
dr jay October 09, 2012 at 07:52 PM
At back-to-school night last night, it was all I could do not to break into Tom Lehrer's "New Math." That was *fifty* years ago, and the "innovations" have just kept on coming. Probably no one is appreciably "better" or "worse" than any other, so why can't they just pick one and stick to it? I guarantee, my daughter is going to be confused.
magalye October 10, 2012 at 06:21 PM
It's definetly different from when i learned math, keep me posted,, my sons school started last year. There is an iPad app available for kids.
Steven Greenstein October 12, 2012 at 12:14 PM
This is an excerpt from a report by Fareed Zakaria in which he quotes the former Minister of Education in Singapore comparing the U.S. and Singapore’s mathematics and science education: Tharman Shanmugaratnam, until recently Singapore’s minister of education, explains the difference between his country’s system and that of the United States: “We both have meritocracies,” Shanmugaratnam says. “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. We know how to train people to take exams. You know how to use people’s talents to the fullest. Both are important, but there are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.” This is one reason that Singaporean officials recently visited U.S. schools to learn how to create a system that nurtures and rewards ingenuity, quick thinking, and problem solving. “Just by watching, you can see students are more engaged, instead of being spoon-fed all day,” one Singaporean visitor told The Washington Post. While the United States marvels at Asia’s test-taking skills, Asian governments come to the United States to figure out how to get their children to think.
Steven Greenstein October 12, 2012 at 01:21 PM
Reasoning and problem solving cannot be explicitly taught. They are developed (i.e., learned) through experience. Problem solving is an activity in which the strategy for solving a problem is not immediately known -- the point is to develop that strategy. It's an activity where reasoning is made salient and likely to develop. Here are two examples: 1) Develop a method for finding the area of this irregular shape. 2) Develop a method for describing the steepness of a line. Solving problems, in contrast, is an activity where the strategy IS known and is meant to be applied. Other people's strategies can be explicitly taught. Here are two examples: 1) Find the area of a triangle with base 6 and height 8. (Students will apply the formula for finding the area of a triangle). 2) Find the slope of this line (Students will apply the slope formula.)


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