National Day Special 2015 | A toast to an improbable nation: 1982

Picture this: S'pore maths trends globally

Innovative theories on teaching of maths add up nicely for S'pore on world stage

Dr Kho Tek Hong led the team put together by the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore to come up with quality teaching materials. Some members of the 1980s mathematics project team got together recently. They are (seated, from left): Liang H
Dr Kho Tek Hong led the team put together by the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore to come up with quality teaching materials. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Some members of the 1980s mathematics project team got together recently. They are (seated, from left): Liang Hin Hoon, 81; Sin Kwai Meng, 79; Teh Hong Khuan, 74; Loh Geok Chin, 77; Kho Tek Hong, 69; and (standing, from left): Loy Bon Pen, 70; Hector Chee, 82. PHOTO: TED CHEN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Above: Ms Adele Piccolo, a deputy principal at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg, South Africa, has been using Singapore mathematics textbooks to teach her pupils. The school started using the Singapore maths curriculum in January 2010. PHOTO: ADELE PICCOLO
Above: Pupils at the Quaker Ridge School in Scarsdale, New York, are taught the Singapore maths methods which emphasise visual aids and a slow pace. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Most were mathematics teachers more familiar with the daily grind of primary-school classes.

So the opportunity to reshape the way the nation learnt maths was unprecedented for the nine educators who made up the Primary Mathematics Project team in 1980.

Back then, pupils often could not even master basic maths skills such as division. And the rote-learning approach used by teachers simply led pupils to memorise and copy equations - without true understanding of the process.

Ms Loh Geok Chin, 77, who started teaching in 1955 and was part of that team, says: "It was a test of our willingness to try something new, and work together for this task."

The team, whose members are now in their 60s to 80s, was put together by the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore. Their task for the Ministry of Education was to come up with quality instructional materials for all subjects.


    • 1960: First Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

    • 1966: Bilingual policy adopted, makes a second language compulsory.

    • 1975: Children stop enrolling in Tamil-medium schools.

    • 1980: Streaming is introduced to allow students to learn at different paces.

    • 1983: Children stop enrolling in Malay-medium schools, and Chinese-medium schools see a decline in enrolment.

    • 1984: Gifted Education Programme starts for the top 1 per cent of each cohort.

    • 1992: The Institute of Technical Education begins as a post-secondary institute focusing on engineering and technical work.

    • 1995: Singapore tops the Trends in International Maths and Science Study's rankings for maths for the first time. The study assesses the maths and science knowledge of nine- and 13-year-olds.

    • 2003: Compulsory education up to Primary 6 implemented.

    • 2004: Integrated Programme launched; students can skip O levels and proceed to junior college.

    • 2008: Schools introduce subject-based banding, replacing weakest EM3 stream. Pupils can take subjects with levels of varying difficulty, based on abilities.

    • 2012: MOE stops announcing identity of top PSLE scorers.

    • 2012: SIM University is designated by the Government as Singapore's sixth university to offer full-time degree programmes, together with National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Management University, Singapore University of Technology and Design and Singapore Institute of Technology.

Their project, which lasted from 1980 to 1996, resulted in a completely new way of learning maths using blocks and pictures.

It propelled Singapore to worldwide fame in the subject, with local students topping global rankings in 1995, 1999 and 2012. At least 12 countries, including the United States, now use textbooks based on Singapore maths methods.

The team produced three editions of textbooks which were used in primary schools for more than 20 years until the early 2000s. The first, titled Primary Mathematics, was published in 1982.

Even new school textbooks rely on that early team's groundbreaking model method.

So how did the team pull it off? They researched learning theories and methods, and their project director, Dr Kho Tek Hong, visited several countries, including Japan and Canada, to see how they were learning maths.

Among the American learning theories that caught their attention was one by psychologist Jerome Bruner - that people learn in three stages: first by using real objects, then by using pictures, and, finally, by using symbols.

Another was the part-whole approach by Dr James Greeno, professor of education at Stanford University. It involved looking at quantities in terms of the relationships between parts and a whole.

The theories led to techniques that Singapore maths is famous for, such as the model method which involves using bar drawings to visually represent quantities.

Mr Liang Hin Hoon, 81, recalls how each team member would work on several topics across different primary levels before coming together to finalise the materials. "Sometimes we didn't agree, and we would meet for one to two hours. We might have to rewrite, make changes until everyone agreed and we got a final copy," he says.

The group comprised former teachers and principals who became curriculum specialists. Besides Dr Kho, Mr Liang and Ms Loh, the members were Mr Hector Chee, Ms Arlene Leong, Mr Loy Bon Pen, Mr Sin Kwai Meng, Mrs Teh Hong Khuan and the late Ms Chee Kim Lian.

Mr Loy, 70, still swears by the bar model method, which he uses to teach his Primary 1 grandson topics such as fractions. "It's a useful method for young kids, even today."

The team devised ways to make lessons more interesting - from enrichment activities and workshops to guides for teachers as well as educational toys.

Mrs Teh, 74, notes: "Primary school is a time when children decide whether they like a subject or not. This affects what they choose to pursue in future."

And Mrs Lee Kok Hong, 57, who used the Primary Mathematics package when she taught from 1979 to 2009, says it was "extremely useful" for teachers: "There were unit plans and suggested activities for every topic, the instructional objectives were clear and the notes for teachers were very helpful."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline Picture this: S'pore maths trends globally. Subscribe