Making Math Lessons as Easy as 1, Pause, 2, Pause …

Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

Students learning Singapore math, like these fourth graders at Quaker Ridge School in Scarsdale, N.Y., use many hands-on and visual aids.

By WINNIE HU 

FRANKLIN LAKES, N.J. — By the time they get to kindergarten, children in this well-to-do suburb already know their numbers, so their teachers worried that a new math program was too easy when it covered just 1 and 2 — for a whole week.

Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

Kerri Gega teaching Singapore math in Scarsdale, N.Y. The district initially spent $145,632 for books and teachers’ materials.

“Talk about the number 1 for 45 minutes?” said Chris Covello, who teaches 16 students ages 5 and 6. “I was like, I don’t know. But then I found you really could. Before, we had a lot of ground to cover, and now it’s more open-ended and gets kids thinking.”

The slower pace is a cornerstone of the district’s new approach to teaching math, which is based on the national math system of Singapore and aims to emulate that country’s success by promoting a deeper understanding of numbers and math concepts. Students in Singapore have repeatedly ranked at or near the top on international math exams since the mid-1990s.

Franklin Lakes, about 30 miles northwest of Manhattan, is one of dozens of districts, from Scarsdale, N.Y., to Lexington, Ky., that in recent years have adopted Singapore math, as it is called, amid growing concerns that too many American students lack the higher-order math skills called for in a global economy.

For decades, efforts to improve math skills have driven schools to embrace one math program after another, abandoning a program when it does not work and moving on to something purportedly better. In the 1960s there was the “new math,” whose focus on abstract theories spurred a back-to-basics movement, emphasizing rote learning and drills. After that came “reform math,” whose focus on problem solving and conceptual understanding has been derided by critics as the “new new math.”

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