Singapore Maths - A Towering Force of PISA

You’d expect Singapore maths to be taught only in Singapore, right? But the local teaching method has proven so successful that teachers are employing it in primary schools all over the world, even as far as South America. A UK study done last year showed that British pupils using the Singapore method saw an improvement that was “roughly equivalent to one additional month of progress over the academic year.”

Every three years, a worldwide study called Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares 15-year-old students’ results in Mathematics, Science and Reading. In the last study, Singapore topped the rankings for all three categories, beating former all-category champion Shanghai.

So what’s Singapore maths?

Singapore uses the mastery approach to learning, which favours depth over breadth. It means that students must achieve a high degree of competency in a topic before moving on to the next. Topics are broken down into smaller, specific objectives, with mini-tests (called mastery tests) checking students’ understanding every step of the way.

In contrast, the mindset approach, widely adopted by the US and the UK in the last ten years, starts with exposure to broader concepts, which are then broken down into smaller chunks. Students are encouraged to develop an intuitive understanding of a mathematical concept before moving on to more specific operations.


When you hear the phrase “Singapore maths”, it refers to a concrete-pictorial-abstract method which was developed locally to teach Maths. As its name implies, it involves three steps. When teaching a mathematical concept, the teacher will start by using physical teaching aids like number blocks. Referred to as ‘manipulatives’, these aids can also come in the form of everyday objects, such as paper clips or erasers. Students learn by physically handling these objects. For example, they can take away objects from a pile to learn subtraction.

Students then move on to the pictorial step where pictures or symbols are used to represent the objects. This is where the learning process starts to feel more familiar to parents, since it usually involves worksheets. For example, while students might be handling plates in the concrete step, they may now use pictures of plates instead.

The last step is the abstract one. Students solve maths problems without handling objects or referring to pictures, which is how we actually do maths in everyday life. After all, when you split the bill after a meal, you don’t draw pictures of coins and dollar notes — you just use numbers.

This three-step process of learning is not copyrighted or trademarked, which is why it can be implemented in other countries.

This article first appeared on Yahoo!


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