What American Teachers Can Learn from Singapore

What American Teachers Can Learn from Singapore

What American Teachers Can Learn from Singapore

One of the most difficult things a teacher has to do is understand a new and unfamiliar method of learning. As Singapore Math continues to gain in popularity, more teachers are in the position of having to figure out what this approach is all about and how to teach it.

Teachers who are new to Singapore Math quickly figure out it’s not “what” Singapore Math teaches that makes it different—and more effective—than other methods. It’s “how” it is taught.

Singapore teachers do have a unique and proven approach to math instruction. Other math teachers, whether they are teaching Singapore Math or not, can learn from their habits and attitudes. And the fastest way to start modeling their approach is by following the powerful patterns of instruction examined in this article

A Teacher’s Mindset

According to respected educator and Singapore math expert Dr. Yeap Ban Har, “If teachers’ mindset isn’t in the right place, whatever else we do may not be useful.” Singapore Math teachers do think differently than other math teachers. They believe students are their country’s natural resources and their job is to help them grow. They do so by freeing themselves from the shackles of tradition and adopting a new and different approach to math. For example, they understand that math is not only about procedures or memorization—the way it is in many schools. Rather, it’s about thinking. Each day, they set about their job: To get children to think deeply, and ultimately, understand and apply key math concepts.

An Environment That Engages

For the majority of students, math is a time of day, a subject, or a textbook. Not in Singapore. Math is omnipresent in classrooms, and throughout the schools and grounds. The belief is that teachers can’t make children learn. Children must enjoy learning to learn. That requires an engaging learning environment that is rich with math.

In Singapore, teachers use their space creatively and fill it with fun and joyful learning experiences, many of which may be surprising to American teachers. The walls are joyful. The stairs encourage children to skip count their way to class. The playgrounds invite children to hopscotch through their ones, twos, and beyond. Learning is experiential, participatory, visual, communicative, and relevant. In this environment, teachers playfully lay the foundation for the work the children are going to do later.

Language That is Intentional

In Singapore, it’s not all about the numbers. Teachers also purposefully weave intentional math language into their everyday curriculum. Intentional language contributes to a deeper understanding of the concepts learned and enables teachers to guide and shape student thinking. Through math vocabulary, teachers bridge the gap between abstract concepts and math as a real-life tool. Words are considered the secret that unlocks the numbers.

Words matter in the Singapore classroom. Teachers match sight words and phrases to the numbers to reinforce concepts. They teach shapes with objects and with words. Singapore teachers brush off any negative feelings about math and instill enthusiasm in their students with their language. They help them see new possibilities with statements like “What if we…” and “Would it be easier to count this way?”


Journal writing is a tool teachers use to reinforce the concepts Singapore students are learning. It gives them opportunities to reflect, question their understanding, turn the abstract into concrete, and apply the knowledge they have acquired to solve problems. Through journals, teachers gain insight into children’s prior knowledge, abilities, opinions, and misconceptions.

An enlightened teacher can be a huge gift to children discovering math. Those who care enough to put these powerful practices into action will continue to impact children’s lives year after year.

For a deeper look at how to benefit from the wisdom of Singapore teachers, check out SDE’s webinar Singapore Math: Beyond the Teacher Guides (Gr. K–3) by veteran educator and Singapore Math expert Char Forsten.