When it comes to maths, S'pore students have a blast

2 times 2 is four, 2 times 3 is six.

Most of us of a certain age learnt maths like this - by rote.

No wonder some of us hated the subject.

But today, Singapore teens rank No. 2 in the subject among 65 countries and territories in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2012 released yesterday, and are among the top 5 when it comes to enjoying the subject.

Mrs Cynthia Seto, master teacher in mathematics at the Academy of Singapore Teachers, and Miss Gayatri Balakrishnan, senior curriculum specialist (mathematics) at the Ministry of Education's curriculum planning and development division, give some examples of how teachers are making maths fun.

Geometry on the computer

Teachers are using technology to make lessons more interactive.

For example, rather than being told about the different geometrical shapes, students can look at them on school computers.

They learn to identify an isosceles triangle (a triangle with two equal sides) by pulling and dragging the shapes and changing the orientation on the computer.

When two sides remain equal despite being manipulated in different ways, that is the isosceles triangle.

Bus schedules and common multiples

Previously, teachers asked students to list the common multiples (numbers into which each number in a given set can be divided with zero remainder) in class. Now, real-life examples such as bus timetables are used to teach it.

Students are told when buses leave the interchange. They are also told the minimum and maximum frequency for two service numbers, for instance, five minutes and six minutes respectively.

They are then asked if the two service numbers would meet on the route, an indication of the common multiples for both frequencies. Students can check for other combinations by changing the frequency timings.

Of discounts, GST and percentages

Students solve problems involving discounts and the goods and services tax (GST).

For instance, teachers may get students to compare different deals in advertisement brochures to see which option gives the best value for money.

The students have to justify the decisions they make.

Mathematical modelling

Students have to explain how they would park cars, given a limited amount of space.

Should they be placed horizontally, vertically, or any combination in between?

The students have to discuss and analyse why they prefer a certain option.

Spreadsheets and Shoe Sizes

Traditional way: Memorise the formula for the average, mean and mode.

Now, students look at spreadsheets after they collect data of, for example, their classmates' shoe sizes.

From the information, they have to look for patterns that would tell them what the most common shoe size is.

They may also role play by considering what sizes they would stock up on if they ran a shoe shop.

How we ranked

The report card is out.

And Singapore clocked a superstar performance in mathematics at the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development coordinated.

Pisa tests a 15-year-old student's ability to apply skills and knowledge in maths, science and reading to real-life problems.

The tests began in 2000 and are administered every three years.

Singapore came in second in maths, behind Shanghai - we were first in the computer-based maths section and second in the paper-based section.

Our 5,546 students from all 166 public secondary schools and six private schools performed ahead of 63 other participating countries and territories.

A Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesman said the participation of a minimum of 150 schools was needed to meet Pisa sampling requirements.

"MOE decided to have all 166 of our public secondary schools take part in the study rather than to exclude a small number of schools."

China did not take part as a whole country, but was represented by high-performing cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The second-place mathematics showing is the same as 2009, when Singapore volunteered to take part in Pisa for the first time.

For Mrs Cynthia Seto, master teacher for mathematics at the Academy of Singapore Teachers, the results showed "our students are motivated by the interesting strategies and reallife examples that teachers use... so they acquire thinking and problem-solving skills".

What's heartening for educators like her is the confidence and motivation that students had for maths: 77 per cent said they looked forward to the lessons - compared to the 36 per cent average.

Seven in 10 of Singapore students also said they do maths because they enjoy it, while less than 4 in 10 of their global peers felt the same way. Singapore ranked fourth overall in student's confidence in the subject.

Our students also improved in reading and science, coming in third for both tests. In 2009, Singapore students were ranked fifth in reading and fourth in science.

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