Tag Archives: Singapore math books

7000+ Drill-and-Kill Singapore Math Questions

Based on the average number of questions contained in an assessment (or supplementary) math book these days, it can be estimated that most students in Singapore would have solved some seven thousand math questions by the time they had graduated from elementary school. Indeed, an awful lot, to say the least.

I try to understand why local math writers feel that they’ve to provide such an unhealthy number of these drill-and-kill questions or routines for students to practice. Surely, their publishers are behind this “numerical obscenity,” arguing that many kiasu parents would feel that they’re buying a value-for-money book. Imagine the emotional or psychological harm it could do to a child who barely has any interest in the subject.

Even for those with a fluency with numbers, wouldn’t a thousand (or even half of that number) questions bore them to death? Many would end up getting a distorted picture of what elementary math is all about—imitate-practice-imitate more-practice more.

Primary One Mathematics Tutor—Book 1A
Imagine that’s just Book 1A for grade one! How many more drills are there for Book 1B?

The Junk Food of Singapore’s Math Education

Drill-and-kill math questions are like the junk food of math education. Every now and then, we all visit these fast food outlets, but to grow up on a diet that consists mainly of burgers, French flies, and Coke for most days of the week, that can only be a good recipe for unavoidable obesity and all sorts of preventable diseases that would pop up sooner than later. Likewise, over-exposing students to these math drills would only produce an army of drill-and-kill specialists, who wouldn’t be able to think critically and creatively in mathematics—and later in life.

The Baby [Math] Gift for Singapore’s Jubilee

For Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, when the nation celebrates its 50th year of independence in 2015, other than giving items like a special medallion, a multi-functional shawl, and a set of baby clothes, one of the suggested gifts by the mathematical brethren to be given to Singaporean babies born next year should be a check amounting to not less than a thousand bucks. This would help defray the average cost incurred by parents who would need to buy those elementary math supplementary titles during the child’s formative years—it’s a rite of passage for every child studying in a Singapore government school to expose himself or herself to these drill-and-kill questions. Even if parents are opposed to these math drills, school teachers or tutors might still recommend the child to buy one!

Primary Four Mathematics Tutor—Book 4A
It looks like an average grade 4 child has to solve not less than a thousand odd questions before he or she could graduate to grade 5.

Drill-and-Kill Specialists or Innumerates

Of course, it’s better to produce tens of thousands of drill-and-kill specialists than an army of innumerates. In the short term, this raises the self-esteem of the children, as they feel that they can solve most of these routine questions, by parroting the solutions of the worked examples.  We all learn by imitation, but at least the questions need to slowly move from routine to non-routine. We can’t afford to have hundreds of questions that test the same skills or sub-skills almost without end. We need a balanced percent of drills, non-drills, and challenging questions—not a disproportionate unhealthy number of drill-and-kill questions, which would only affect our long-term mathematical health.

Primary Five Mathematics Tutor—Book 5A
Interestingly, many average students find books like the above far more useful than their oft-boring school textbooks and workbooks.

The Good Part of Drill-and-Kill

One good thing about these wallet-friendly drill-and-kill math titles is that they can easily replace a lousy or lazy math teacher, or even a mathophobic parent. After all, we can’t expect too much from a mathematical diet that could help sustain (or even strengthen) us for a while. At best, they’re like Kumon Math, which subscribes to the philosophy that more practice and more drill could eventually help the child to become self-motivated, and to raise his or her self-esteem in the short term.

Maths Practice 1000+—Grade 5
Some of these reprinted or rehashed “math drills” titles cost on average less than one cent per question—no doubt, many [gullible?] parents think or feel that they’re getting a pretty good deal from buying these wallet-friendly books—cheap and “good”!

Are You a Disciple of Drill-and-Kill?

If mathematical proficiency is credited to be achieved through practice and more practice, would you buy a few of these math practice titles for your child? Or, as a teacher or tutor, would you recommend one for your student or tutee? Don’t you think that this is a case of “more is less”? Could the child end up being mathematically undernourished when it comes to creative problem solving and higher-order thinking? Or maybe the child could even be numerically constipated by an overdose of these drill-and-kill questions?

Maths Practice 1000+—Grade 6
Caution: The above title may be hazardous to your long-term mathematical health—it could atrophy your higher-order, creative, and critical thinking skills in mathematics!

© Yan Kow Cheong, July 4, 2014.

Problem Solving Made Difficult

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The US edition of a grade 5 Singapore math supplementary title.

Recently, while revising a grade 5 supplementary book I wrote for Marshall Cavendish, I saw that other than the answer, there was no solution or hint provided to the following question.

If Ann gave $2 to Beth, Beth would have twice as much as Ann.
If Beth gave $2 to Ann, they would have the same amount of money.
How much did each person have?

Most grade 7 Singapore math textbooks and assessment books would normally carry a few of these typical word problems, whereby students are expected to use an algebraic method to solve them. For instance, using algebra, students would form two linear equations in x and y, before solving them by the elimination, or substitution, method. A pretty standard application of solving a pair of simultaneous linear equations, by an analytic method.

However, it’s not uncommon to see these types of word problems appearing in lower-grade supplementary titles, whereby students could solve them, using the Singapore model, or bar, method; and the Sakamoto method. In other words, these grade 7 and 8 questions could be solved by grade 5 and 6 students, using a non-algebraic method.

Algebra versus Model Drawing

Conceptually speaking, I think a grade 6 or 7 student who can solve the above word problem, using a model drawing, appears to exhibit a higher level of mathematical maturity than one who simply uses two variables to represent the unknowns, before forming two simultaneous linear equations to solve them. Of course, because the numbers in this question are relatively small, it’s not surprising to catch a number of average students relying on the trial-and-error method to find the answer.

Try to solve the question, using both algebra and a model; then compare the two methods of solution. Which one do you think demands a deeper or higher level of reasoning or thinking skills?

Depicted below is a model drawing of the above grade 5 word problem.

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From the model drawing,

1 unit = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 8
1 unit + 2 = 10
1 unit + 6 = 14

Ann had $10.
Beth had $14.

Generalizing the Problem

A minor change in the question, by altering the “number of times” Beth would have as much money as Ann, reveals an interesting pattern: the model drawing remains unchanged, except for the varying number of units that represent the same quantity.Here are two modified versions of the original grade 5 question.

If Ann gave $2 to Beth, Beth would have three times as much as Ann.

If Beth gave $2 to Ann, they would have the same amount of money.
How much did each person have?

Answer: Ann–$6; Beth–$10.

If Ann gave $2 to Beth, Beth would have five times as much as Ann.
If Beth gave $2 to Ann, they would have the same amount of money.
How much did each person have?

Answer: Ann–$4; Beth–$8.

From Problem Solving to Problem Posing

The two modified questions could serve as good practice for students to become skilled in model drawing, and to help them deduce numerical relationships confidently from them. Besides, they provide a good opportunity to challenge students to pose similar questions, by altering the “number of times” Beth would have as much money as Ann. Which numerical values would work, and what ones wouldn’t, in order for the model drawing to make sense, or for the question to remain solvable?

Conclusion

Let me end, by tickling you with another grade 5 question, similar to the previous three word problems.

If Ann gave $2 to Beth, Beth would have three times as much as Ann.
If Beth gave $2 to Ann, they would have twice as much money as Beth.
How much did each person have?

Answer: Ann–$4.40; Beth–$5.20.

How do you still use the model method to solve this slightly modified ratio question? Test it on your better students or colleagues! It’s slightly harder, because any obvious result isn’t easily deduced from the model drawing, as compared to the ones posed earlier on. Besides, unlike the three previous word problems whose answers are integers, this last problem has a decimal answer—it just doesn’t lend itself well to the guess-and-check strategy.

Share with us how your students or colleagues fare on this last question. Remember: No algebra allowed!

© Yan Kow Cheong, July 12, 2013.

Singapore math authors-millionaires

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Mr. Chow’s new revised grade 7 textbook—a US edition is also available, which competes with an equivalent title in the “Math in Focus” series.

It’s an open secret that two of the well-paid math authors in Singapore are Dr. Fong Ho Kheong and Mr. Chow Wai Keung—two non-Singaporeans who have made it to the Millionaire Dollar Club. Also on the Forbes’ Singapore Math List are local folks like Dr. Y. H. Leong, Andrew Er, Fabian Ng, and Lee-Ann Goh, albeit their names are most likely alien to those outside Singapore.

Obscure writing, obscene royalties

A talking point in the local mathematical community is that both millionaires-authors “can’t write”—their titles are notoriously heavily edited or ghostwritten by editors. For instance, there is a decade-long local joke that over a hundred editors have their “editorial footprints” on Dr. Fong’s dozen odd titles.

Form or substance

As for Mr. Victor Chow, his critics remarked that his series of no-frills Discovering Maths titles—apparently a canned version of his ill-written books, which have been poorly received in Hong Kong—is ironically (or miraculously?) doing pretty well in Singapore, in spite of the fact that the competitors’ authors have been household names in math education for decades—many of whom are still teaching teachers.

Many attributed the decent or successful adoption of the Discovering Mathematics series in local schools, primarily because of better sales and marketing strategies by the publisher, as compared to those used by its competitors—form has allegedly triumphed over substance, thanks to lateral (and often shady) marketing.

Interestingly, that many in academia and in local publishing circles subscribe to the above views or rumors, whether because they’re jealous and envious of their “obscene” royalties, is understandable. Apparently, they rationalized that Dr. Fong’s and Mr. Chow’s “below-average writing skills” didn’t match their deserved earnings.

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Dr. Fong co-authored latest grade 1 textbook, based on the new Singapore syllabus.

A mix of jealousy and envy and …

Having had the opportunity to speak with some of Dr. Fong’s ex-colleagues, and those who know him personally, it sounds to me that jealousy and envy feature high in discrediting him for “earning so much,” as they feel that they “can lecture better” and “have written more quality research papers” than him.

The argument is that writing textbooks (even successful ones) are for second-rate math educators and mathematicians—unspokenly, first-rate math folks write papers and speak at conferences; second- and third-rate folks write textbooks, or become consultants of these textbooks.

What is seldom talked about is that a number of these so-called seasoned lecturers feel marginalized or “blacklisted” by local publishers for not approaching them—many are still waiting for publishers to line up outside their offices to beg them to write for them. As a result, it’s not surprising that a number of them condescendingly blame local publishers and editors for choosing second-rate writers to author the school textbooks.

Dr. Fong—Singapore’s math popularizer

What we seldom hear, though, is that albeit Dr. Fong might arguably be a “boring presenter or lecturer,” as remarked by his critics, he nevertheless had the guts to promote his books in public, unlike his fellow ex-colleagues who think that it’s a “degrading job” to become a salesperson in promoting their titles at math conferences. Today, who’s having the last laugh to the bank?

In fact, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that other than Fabian Ng and one or two ghostwriters, it’s Dr. Fong who helped popularize the Singapore model method and the problem-solving strategies locally, through his supplementary math books and public talks in the nineties, written for both students and parents. Yes, long before the Andrew Er’s and Yeap Ban Har’s books were spotted in the local market.

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An assessment title of yesteryear—a forerunner of Dr. Fong & Company’s titles.

When risky wasn’t the new safe yet

At the other end of the wealth distribution curve, we’ve dozens of local math writers who wouldn’t dare to being a full-time author, simply because they’re more likely to end up begging than earning enough royalty to pay their bills. Unless you’re a shrewd textbook author-entrepreneur like Dr. Fong, the rest of us write more for our egos than expect any financial rewards, albeit few would admit it.

Negative royalties

I’ve also heard of local math authors who had earned “negative royalties,” which means they owed the publisher instead—they had sold zero copies, and dozens of free copies were given, as part of some book promotion or launch.

Math can make you rich!

Dr. Fong and Mr. Chow both show that you needn’t be the best writer in town, not even a decent one, but if you work hard and smart, and ignore your critics; and if you’ve faith that your publisher has a good sales and marketing strategy, it’s possible to make a decent living in math education.

And what’s even more amazing is that both are foreign-born writers, who have seized the opportunity to make it big in Singapore, when the majority, some of whom are no doubt smarter and better than them, have let their intellectual or mathematical pride and arrogance prevent them from contributing more to raising the standard of mathematics education in Singapore.

© Yan Kow Cheong, June 30, 2013.

Postscript: The author (@Zero_Math and @MathPlus) is a self-professed zeronaire, who is “infinitely jealous and envious” of these authors-millionaires, who have shown us that with hard work (and some luck by the side) “one can get rich with math,” infinitesimal as the chances may be.

Is Singapore math frickin’ hard?

There is a millennium myth that Singapore math is hard or tough—that only geeks from some remote parts of Asia (or from some red little dot on the world map) should do it. The mass media (and math educators, too) have implicitly mythologized that those who are presently struggling with school math, should avoid Singapore math, in whatever form it’s being presented, totally. A grave mistake, indeed!

Is Singapore math a mere fad?

After reading dozens of tweets and blog posts on the pluses and minuses of Singapore math, it sounds as if Singapore math has a certain mystique around it—some kind of foreign math bestowed by some creatures from outer space to terrorize those who wished math were an optional subject in elementary school.

Not to say, folks who totally reject Singapore math on the basis that it’s just another fad in math education, or another marketing gimmick to promote an allegedly “better foreign curriculum” to math educators. They believe that “back-to-basics math,” whatever that phrase means to them, with all its memorizing and drill-and-kill exercises, is a necessary mathematical evil to get kids to learn arithmetic.

Singapore math OR/AND Everyday Math

Singapore math? Sure, no problem! It’s no big deal!

Well, it’s a big deal for traditional publishers, which may lose tons of money if more states and schools continue to embrace this “foreign brand” of math education.

Poor writing and teaching from a number of us could have indirectly contributed to the white lie that if you can’t cope with Everyday Math or Saxon Math, or whatever math textbook your school or state is currently using, Singapore math is worse! You might as well forget about it!

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One of the first few Singapore supplementary titles to promote the model method in the mid-nineties.

The bar method as a powerful problem-solving strategy

Objectively speaking, Singapore math doesn’t come close to most pedagogical insights or creative ideas featured in journals and periodicals published by the MAA and the NTCM. Personally, I must admit that I become a better teacher, writer, and editor, thanks to these first-class publications. The Singapore model method, although a key component of the Singapore math curriculum, is just one of the problem-solving strategies we use every day, as part of our problem-solving toolkit.

On the other hand, for vested interests on the part of some publishers, little has been done to promote other problem-solving strategies, such as the Stack Method and the Sakamoto method, which are as powerful, if not more elegant, than the bar method—in fact, more and more local students and teachers are using them as they see their advantages over the model method in a number of problem situations.

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Fabien Ng in his heyday was a household name in mathematics education in Singapore—it looks like he’s since almost disappeared from the local publishing scene.

Don’t throw out the mathematical baby yet!

You may not wish to adopt the Singapore math curriculum, or even part of it; but at least consider the model and stack methods, not to say, the Sakamoto method, as part of your arsenal of problem-solving strategies (or heuristics, as we call them here). Don’t let traditional publishers (or “math editors” with a limited repertoire of problem-solving strategies) prevent you from acquiring new mathematical tools to improve your mathematical problem-solving skills.

In Singapore, the model, or bar, method is formally taught until grade six to solve a number of word problems, because from grade seven onwards, we want the students to switch over to algebra. However, this doesn’t mean that we’d totally ban the use of the model method in higher grades, because in a number of cases, the model or stack method often offers a more elegant or intuitive method of solution than its algebraic counterpart.

© Yan Kow Cheong, May 27, 2013.

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A booklet comprising of PSLE (grade 6) past exam papers, which cost me only 88 cents in the eighties.