Curriculum Opinion

What Can and Can’t American Education Learn From Singapore?

By Sara Mead — July 11, 2010 3 min read
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In a recent New Republic column, renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum criticizes liberal education reformers for being too enthusiastic to embrace the education systems of China and Singapore as models for reform stating that, “Singapore and China are terrible models of education for any nation that aspires to remain a pluralistic democracy.” Her argument focuses on three points: First, education in Singapore in China focuses heavily on “rote learning"* and “teaching to the test.” Second, the education bureaucracies in Singapore and China have themselves found their model lacking in developing students’ creativity and analytical abilities, and are implementing reforms designed to make their education systems more child-centered. Third, the authoritarian governments in both nations discourage independent thinking and dissent in ways that undermine the educational goal of developing strong critical thinkers.

I found the piece awfully odd. Mostly because I don’t actually see a desire to emulate China or Singapore playing a major role in liberal education reform proposals. To be sure, politicians and education reforms like to talk about the strong performance of these nations on the TIMSS (Trends in International Math and Science Study), as part of a larger competitiveness/world is flat** argument for education reform. Think of that argument what you will, it’s not the same as arguing that the U.S. system should become like Singapore’s or China’s—simply that we shouldn’t be satisfied with our current educational outcomes.

At the same time, TIMSS has led to some excellent research looking at what high-performing nations do well when it comes to math and science instruction and what the United State can learn from them. Oddly, Nussbaum doesn’t mention this research at all.

Take research on Singapore’s approach to math. Researchers attribute Singapore’s success to a coherent curriculum framework that works in a logical sequence and builds deep understanding of math and concepts, not just algorithms and formulas; extra support and a slower pace (but the same framework) for struggling students; teachers who have a deep knowledge of math content; and more rigorous assessments. They also note some U.S. strengths Singapore could learn from, particularly in the areas of statistics and probability. Some of these findings fly in the face of the argument that students in Singapore simply memorize facts for tests and don’t learn to think critically or deeply. (In fairness, students in Singapore are expected to memorize their math facts to a greater extent than American youngsters are.) Consider this item from Singapore’s 6th grade primary school leaving exam, which requires strong problem-solving and logical thinking about math for students to solve:

Can you answer this question? See answer in comments.

Obviously, Singapore and China are far from a model for the United States in many ways. But those shortcomings have nothing to do with the advisability of a more coherent curriculum, elementary school teachers who truly understand mathematics, or more rigorous assessments—none of which are inconsistent with democratic pluralism. Fortunately our justified aversions to other things about China’s and Singapore’s education systems don’t have to keep us from learning from what they do well.

*"Rote” is a 4-letter word in most education circles, but I don’t really think it’s justified. There are lots of things we have to learn by rote. Could you get by without memorizing your PIN number, your bike lock combination, your spouse’s birthday? There’s nothing wrong with memorization; it’s more important to ask whether the things kids memorize are a) correct/accurate, b) worth memorizing, and c) situated in a coherent broader curriculum that enables them to use and make sense of what they memorize.

**Personally, every time I hear Thomas Friedman or “The World is Flat” cited in education policy debates, I feel like banging my head against the wall. But that’s just me.

Graphic source: What the United States Can Learn From Singapore’s World-Class Mathematics System: An Exploratory Study, American Institutes of Research, January 28, 2005.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.