01 October 2010


SINGAPORE MATH. Theories on learning have shifted over the years, particularly in the realm of mathematics. I'm a graduate of the older style of teaching which held sway in the 1950s and '60s -- rote learning and practice drills. The math skills I mastered remain sharp to this day. Standing in line at a checkout stand, I can mentally compute the change due faster than the math-challenged clerk can punch in the numbers on his/her computerized cash register. I still love algebra and geometry.

But there was something missing from my learning set -- learning to understand and to manipulate abstract concepts. So trigonometry was a little tougher for me, biostatistics was tougher still, and calculus .... oh my.

Over the years several iterations of learning theory have held sway in the nation's classrooms, none of them totally satisfactory. "New math" focused on absract theories. "Back to Basics math" espoused a return to rote learning and practice drills. "Reform math" emphasized problem solving and conceptual understanding.

Currently the teaching methods practiced in Singapore are receiving much attention, since students there consistently score among the top math students in the world on standardized math tests. Singapore math is unique in several aspects. Firstly, it insists on slowing down the learning process, allowing students plenty of time to solidly grasp a new skill, thus establishing a firm foundation of understanding upon which to build more complex skills. Secondly, it appears to combine the best aspects of both old and new math -- concrete, pictorial, and abstract thinking. This accomodates students with different learning styles, leveling the playing field. (The middle step is typically skipped in American schools, to the detriment of students.) Thirdly, gifted students can accelerate through the learning process, starting by fourth and fifth grades, thus allowing all students to learn to their individual potential.

Significantly, the most vocal opponents to Singapore math have been American teachers, who themselves "lacked a strong math background and adequate training in the program." Other opponents include parents and school boards who are skeptical about importing a "foreign" math program. To the first objection (the appeal to mediocrity) my response is -- why are unqualified teachers instructing our children in the first place??? This is one of the most glaring deficiencies in American education. To the second objection (the appeal to xenophobia) my response is -- there is nothing "foreign" about math. Like music, it is a universal language. Whether a successful teaching method originates in Singapore, Sarasota or Siam is totally irrelevant. You simply cannot argue with success.

The Singapore system is explained in greater detail in Winnie Hu's NYTimes article. As both a former student and former teacher, I'm adopting a wait-and-see attitude. But I must say, this approach looks very promising.

IKE. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his parting address to the nation, famously intoned the warning "Beware the military-industrial complex." Truer and more oracular words have rarely been spoken. According to Michael Moore (who, though controversial, has yet to be proven wrong), throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, Presidents and the public have been manipulated by the Pentagon, and by the corporations which will employ Pentagon generals and admirals when they retire. One need look no further than the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to find abundant evidence. Every president since Eisenhower (and many preceding him) has been a titular figurehead -- "commander in chief" in name only. Military chiefs of staff and other advisors play a decisive role in determining where, when, why, and how the guerre de jour will be fought.

Moore cites Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars in support of his assertion. I invite you to read Moore's entire article here, and draw your own conclusions.

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