Using Singapore Maths to raise standards – Matthew Bowles

Matt Bowles, Head of Maths and Assessment at St Stephens Junior School, Canterbury describes how he led the teaching of Singapore Maths as his final assignment for the NPQSL and to embed the problem solving techniques as a school-wide improvement initiative. The impact on the school’s progress data was impressive.

Singapore Maths has been the focus of some recent professional debate. In essence it is around the use of problem solving techniques to solve mathematical problems in support of arithmetic skills. It teaches pupils to think mathematically as opposed to simply using specific formula and Singapore has been regarded, through evidence of research, as top of international benchmark studies of pupil attainment in Mathematics.

As the Subject Leader for Maths I decided to focus on this topic for my NPQSL assessment but to ensure the project was closely linked to my role and a significant area of the school’s improvement plan.

My primary project aim was to develop the teaching of Singapore Maths throughout our school so that children could be more successful when faced with worded mathematical problems. With support and advice from my Headteacher and from my NPQSL Coach I set the following project goals:

  • Assess the current situation regarding the teaching and learning of problem solving
  • Ensure all teaching staff were familiar with key strategies in teaching Singapore Maths and able to deliver effective lessons
  • Provide ongoing support staff for in the teaching of Singapore Maths
  • Engage parents in the teaching of Singapore Maths ensuring there was good support at home

To achieve these goals I recognised the need from the start to involve all other teachers and to support them in their development of teaching, to ensure Teaching Assistants felt confident and supported.

At St Stephens we are committed to ensuring that parents are fully engaged in the learning for their children so that teaching is not regarded as merely something that happens at school. So, gaining awareness and involvement of parents in the teaching and learning of Singapore Maths strategies would be an important success factor.

I was also aware that Singapore Maths had previously been taught in school though this had been quite sporadic and inconsistent – my aim was to ensure there was a consistently high quality approach to teaching these strategies.

I undertook a baseline test of a sample group of children from across the school and this showed a lack of understanding and awareness of how to use Singapore Maths strategies. Similarly discussions with relevant staff confirmed a variable level of awareness and ability.

In order to gain commitment from teaching staff I first ran an introductory session using some basic examples to enable confidence from the start. I subsequently supported staff in their teaching, I modeled lessons for then and also team-taught. Following lesson observations I offered constructive feedback and advice on how teachers could further improve their teaching of Singapore Maths strategies.

To fully involve parents and so that they could support children at home with using Singapore Maths, I held a series of open evenings for parents to attend with their children. Here I demonstrated the strategies and provided the opportunity to solve problems by using the techniques with support from myself and others. I subsequently followed up these sessions up with a series of homework. The feedback and response was immensely encouraging especially in the open sessions where parents saw their children solving quite complicated problems successfully.

However, I encountered some issues and barriers along the way and in this I valued the support from my NPQSL Coach to develop appropriate strategies and solutions to move my project forward.

 

Barriers Encountered

Reluctant/sceptical teaching staff

To address some early concerns and resistance to trialling the techniques I met with staff individually to listen to the issues and gave some good examples of those children who had clearly benefitted from Singapore Maths as well as showing national research which showed how beneficial it could be. I had previously discussed the project with the Headteacher and the SLT so I was able reiterate the school expectations set that Singapore Maths was to be taught at least once a week. I then continued to monitor and support their teaching of Singapore Maths in a constructive way.

The outcome was that these staff appeared to embrace the techniques positively.

Lower ability concept gap.

For some lower ability children the use of diagrams was another concept for them to grasp in addition to the need to carry out the calculations to solve the problem. I was concerned that this could deter these children from using the strategies.

I worked with lower set teachers to find different ways to incorporate Singapore Maths into their teaching, for example by representing problems visually to the children as well as going back to using manipulatives to represent a problem and obviously by differentiating the use of relevant techniques to meet the differing levels of ability.

Engaging parents

Whilst my initial approaches to parents were reasonably successful, with lots of parents attending sessions and giving me very good feedback, there were still lots of other parents who I had not yet reached. I was aware that those attending the open evenings were likely to be those who would be reasonably confident in their use of Maths generally and it was those who were far less confident that I wanted to engage if possible.

In this respect I sent out an explanation letter to parents being very careful in the content as well as guidance in support of the Singapore Maths homework that was issued for the whole school. I also invited parents from the ‘target’ group to come in for an after-school session and this certainly appeared to help those who were less confident in this area. The feedback I received from parents and from other teachers was very encouraging and overall I was highly satisfied with the engagement and support from parents.

 

Outcomes

Analysis of the sample data showed excellent progress within the sample group – from an average score of +13% on initial assessment to an average score of  +74% on the final assessment.

Analysis of the whole school Maths data also shows improvements since Singapore Maths was introduced, with children’s progress improving year-on-year for the last three years.

 

Conclusion – moving forward

Overall there is no doubt that Singapore Maths has had a direct and significant impact on our school’s numeracy progress data however one of the key strengths of the NPQSL is the emphasis on continuous improvement through reflection and learning. Consequently, I decided to focus on two areas to help improve Singapore Maths as we go forward.

Independent use of Singapore Maths

The main aim is for children to be more confident, and more successful, when faced with problem solving questions. Integrating more examples of Singapore Maths into lessons and not just having it as a separate lesson each week will help children apply the techniques to different areas of Maths.

The techniques still need a specific teaching lesson each week to ensure children have a dedicated opportunity to develop and deepen their problem solving skills each week but extending the use of these techniques into other subjects will enable children to see the wider application and reinforce their skills in different contexts.

Working with less able children

For our lower ability children to be successful in using Singapore Maths strategies we need to continue to promote the links between working with concrete objects, working with pictures of objects and then working with diagrams to represent objects (moving from concrete to abstract).

 

Questions for thought

  1. Could the introduction of Singapore Maths have a similar impact on progress data at your school?
  2. How do you ensure the awareness and commitment of key stakeholders such as parents when introducing new curriculum initiatives?
  3. How do you ensure school leaders are supported in the implementation of new initiatives, especially when hitting difficulties or resistance?
  4. How do you review and evaluate new curriculum initiatives?

 

Matt has kindly provided an example of the homework he set and some power-point slides he used to explain the concepts. You can find both of these in our Resources section.

 

If you would like to find out more about how St Stephens went about teaching Singapore Maths then please contact us at admin@thepmb.co.uk and we will put you in touch with Matt.

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