Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What I'm up to: Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents, or how I hope to get better math instruction to American kids, and other displays of blunt vicious sadism.

The loyal fans (and for that matter the indifferent fans and perhaps even the downright treacherous fans) have been asking what I'm up to, so here's the quick list of responses:

The main thing I'm doing right now is finishing the alpha edition of Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents, specifically the grade-school (K-5) version of it. (I have high hopes of there eventually being a middle school and a high school edition). Strange as this may be to some of you, I'm pretty passionate about math education, and right now Singapore Math -- the best single system of math instruction yet devised, and the system in use not only in Singapore but in the top 5-8 of any meaningful international rankings of  math skills from roughly age 10 and up -- is being widely introduced in the US, mostly in charter schools especially for the gifted and talented, but increasingly in the various first-generation-academic programs I admire, and probably coming soon to the public schools because much of it has been incorporated (not terribly well) into Common Core.

In the US, not just in math but in all subjects, we have a long tradition of thinking we can reform curricula and improve education by just printing new books and sending them to the teachers. Enormous numbers of good ideas have plowed into the wall of  "Just read a chapter ahead of the kids." (In contrast, nations that pull off successful reformations -- like Singapore did in the 1980s, like Korea and Japan recently did (and they were already near the top), like Finland and France do routinely, begin by paying for first-rate training time for teachers.  "What's in the next chapter" in no way substitutes for "How this works, how to teach it, and what you're supposed to be doing, and here's a hotline if you have more questions." 

We also have a long tradition of the dumbest parent voices bellowing the loudest, and of well-meaning parents floundering in confusion, and giving up, because even if they like some aspects of a new curriculum or sort of see what it's about, they don't know enough to be able to defend it against the bleating of "Chaaange! Baaaaaaad!" that every reform or attempted reform (valid or not) encounters.  Most importantly, they get frustrated with being unable to help their children (since they aren't sure about the different material themselves), and not being able to communicate with the teacher (who may very well not know what this is all about either; see our quaint custom of handing over a box of new books and saying "Try to stay a chapter ahead.")

So Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents is going to be my attempt to do something about giving American kids a chance to use the best available math teaching system, despite the odds against them.  I don't believe I can fix the education structure to give teachers the time and training they need, because, frankly, thousands of honest decent people who are smarter and far better politicians than I am have tried, and left craters in the Great Wall of  Duh.

Nor do I think I can write a better textbook, for the students, the teachers, or the parents. 

What I think I can do is figure things out (because I do understand the math, the pedagogy, why it is what it is, and how it should work), and write that in plain enough English so that parents can figure out what's going on.  (Teachers are of course welcome to read it too, if they're in one of those luckless districts or schools where they're being asked to go without training.)

The plan is to have a draft I can sell via self-pub sometime in early February.  It'll be cheap and certain privileges of writing to ask questions, point out typos, complain about obscurity, etc.  will come with the purchase; also I'm hoping to do a few seminars in the Denver area, or maybe further afield, to introduce people to the ideas.  Then I'll get back to novel writing while fielding questions and putting together notes.  Sometime late in the school year -- April, May, maybe June -- I should be ready to roll a beta or a prod version, which I'll probably crowd-fund because I think many parents will want a paper edition, and good paper editions require paying for decent design.

Meanwhile I'm also looking for regular work, maintaining some kind of family life, adjunct teaching a small college, and other stuff that need not concern you here.  But right now life is mostly Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents.

As kind of an appetizer, here's the last third or so of Part Zero, Chapter 0 (yes, that's what I'm calling it; consider yourself lucky I stuck to non-negative rational numbers) where I figure out what "figured out" ought to mean:

So about that "figuring out." "Figuring out Singapore Math" can refer to six different things:

Figuring out why anyone wanted to change the math curriculum anyway, from a perspective that might be as wide as all of American education or as narrow as the people who set the curriculum at your local school. That's covered in Part Zero, Chapter 1.

Figuring out why, out of many possibilities, the curriculum-pickers picked Singapore Math. In a few schools lucky and affluent enough to have math education specialists, the reason will be because someone with a really good, deep understanding of math education has studied it and concluded that it's the best way.

Many American charter schools and school districts, however, have no such person. Much more typically, the reason the curriculum supervisor(s) for your school chose Singapore Math is that it it's the math curriculum connected with the top-achieving school systems in international comparisons (including perpetual #1 Singapore, where it was developed). Who made that decision, and what they were thinking, strongly affects how well Singapore Math will be taught at your child's school.

Part Zero, Chapter 2 explains some of the typical reasons, to help you figure out which of them apply to your local school's decision. It will be useful to know that if Part Three (Chapters 17-20), which discusses the problems and challenges Singapore Math can pose, turns out to be relevant to your case.

Figuring out what's different about Singapore Math, and why you want that difference for your kids. This book is unapologetically on the side of Singapore Math. If you are looking for a book to help you resist it, look elsewhere, perhaps on the shelf that also holds The Case for Going Back to Roman Numerals or Freedom from Subtraction: Just Take the Change and Shut Up. Part One (Chapters 3-5) of this book explores it in much more depth. If your main question is "but why are you doing this to my kid?" Part One is your part.

Figuring out the parts of Singapore Math that you probably didn't have when you were in school, so that you can help your kid figure them out. This is Part Two, (Chapters 6-16)and it's the heart of this book. There's a short discussion in this chapter to orient you for quick reference. If your main question is "but how does this stuff work? how is my kid supposed to do this?," Part Two is your part.

Figuring out how to make Singapore Math a good thing in your kid's education and school.  This is Part Three.

Once you're more or less comfortable with Singapore Math itself, you may find you get a little evangelical about it. I certainly did.

In my own math tutoring work, there was a sort of obsessive period when I wanted everyone to understand how great this was. My obsession was interrupted by an occasional crash when I realized that no matter how much sense Singapore Math makes as a teaching approach, and no matter how much progress kids make with it, I was still teaching math, and math is still unpopular and hard; of the basic subjects, it's definitely the broccoli, not the strawberry sundae.

So if you're already pretty comfortable with Singapore Math, but there's that one thing driving you crazy -- or that thing the kid isn't getting, even though it's crystal clear to you -- or you start to have a terrible suspicion that there's a big problem somewhere out there in the system -- Part Three is where you go for ideas about how to cope with it. Part Three (Chapters 17-20) copes with diagnosing, coaching, making sure that it's really Singapore Math that's being delivered, and forming a supportive network.

Figuring out why and how it can be worth your effort to make Singapore Math a good thing for you and your family. Rather than a conclusion, I call this Part X, Chapter N; just as in algebra, the letters can stand for any number, you can read Part X, Chapter N any time you need a boost, and to feel that what you're doing is worth the trouble. You might think of it as your mission statement for your role as a math-coaching parent.

If you've been keeping count, that's six kinds of figuring out, which is why this is a whole book. The remainder of Part Zero (Chapters 1 and 2) covers the first two, simplest kinds of figuring out:

1)     why did a revised math curriculum become so important in American schools, especially charter schools?

2)     And why has Singapore Math been such a popular answer to the problem, and why do the reasons matter?

If you don't need to know why and just want to plunge right into the other four figurings out, that's what Parts One through X are for; flip on forward and I'll meet you there. Otherwise, turn the page and let's start that first figuring out.

Anyway, that is where my time is at the moment. With luck, a more or less finished edition can be available over the summer for parents (and teachers, and anyone else from hockey players to blacksmiths I suppose) to use in figuring things out for the coming school year. I continue to work daily on Grace, Basically, the mainstream YA novel (my first since Tales of the Madman Underground) that has been hanging maddeningly close to done for a long time; after that, time for some fun books where a lot of stuff blows up.  (Of course, when Singapore Math is suddenly thrust upon unprepared parents and teachers, a lot of stuff blows up, then, too, but it's not nearly as much fun.  And math should be a joy, in the way rock-climbing or skiing are, i.e. sometimes in retrospect you're having the best time right when it's most frustrating; this is the best chance we may have in generations to make math that kind of joy).