A conversation with Dr Yeap Ban Har

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 1 March 2014.)

Today prominent Mathematics educator Dr Yeap Ban Har is here with us. A former lecturer at the National Institute of Education (NIE), he is currently director of curriculum and professional development at Pathlight School, an autism-oriented K-10 school in Singapore, and the principal of Marshall Cavendish Institute, a global teacher professional development institute. He is often mentioned/cited in various local teaching circles, and has appeared in overseas television programs . (His site was also previously featured on our portal. With introductions properly done, It is now time to learn more about his personal philosophy of Mathematics teaching, plus his take on various education issues/concerns.

QN: A warm welcome to you Dr Yeap, and thank you for granting us this opportunity to chat with you. As many of us are aware, Singapore Maths has been held in high regard internationally (for the longest while) till the present day, and some opined that most if not all the credit for this "fame" should be attributed to the bar model solving system which our country pioneered for primary level Mathematics. How accurate is such a hypothesis?

ANS: There is no such thing as Singapore Maths. Our curriculum introduced in 1992 and has been revised several times since then (2001, 2007 and 2013) are based on international call for problem solving as well as theories and research by Bruner, Skemp, Dienes, and so on, just to mention a few names. There is nothing particularly Singaporean about it.

Singapore mathematics textbooks caught the attention of the world because of our students' high achievement in international benchmarking studies, initially in TIMSS1995 and subsequent TIMSS as well as PISA.

QN: In recent years, teachers and parents alike are lamenting that the standard of primary level Mathematics is becoming increasingly difficult to cope with, and at times questions surfacing in the PSLE are so ridiculously hard, even Junior College students are befuddled by them. Have things really changed that much compared to, say a decade ago? If yes, should teaching methodologies evolve significantly, and how should they be re-calibrated to fulfill current expectations?

ANS: PSLE includes questions like 'Find the value of 1.45 x 18.' as well as 'How much must Mr Lim pay for 6 jars of jam as shown in the figure above?' when given a graphic of a signboard stating 2 jars for $2.90. Are these ridiculously hard? If JC students are befuddled by them, they have no business to be in JC. Most of PSLE items are like these. There are a few items which are challenging because they combine concepts in a complex or new way. These are items used to identify the A and A* students. If a student can only do problems like the ones I gave by Primary 6, they should not be assessed as being very good in the subject. In my opinion, it is a good measuring instrument. Have things changed from a decade ago? The current syllabus (with minor tweaks) has been in placed since 1992 and has been assessed at PSLE since 1997. No, it has been the same since 1997 with minor tweaks. For example, in the most recent PSLE there was more scaffolding for the challenging items.

The challenging problems are hard if students do not have the core skills of visualization, generalization, meta-cognition, communication and number sense. I have seen many good things in schools in my regular visits to schools. The teaching methods advocated by MOE is already appropriate one. The challenge is to have more of those in more classrooms. Many schools are using lesson study to help teachers rise to the expectations.

Some parents who can afford it do provide home instruction in the form of tutoring and 'enrichment' programmes. They should know what this does for their kids.

QN: Primary school students are generally uncomfortable when it comes to acquiring basic Algebra skills, perhaps because their young minds are not quite ready for abstract learning. Is there any remedy to this issue? Can they be conditioned to embrace the Xs and Ys more willingly?

ANS: They should not be learning formal algebra too early. Doing simple algebra at primary six is consistent with international practices and research in the filed. It is not an issue that primary students are not taught algebra. In fact, it should become an issue would MOE decide to introduce algebra, say, at Primary 3.

There is a price to pay in terms of learning if formal algebra is introduced too early.

QN: The 'O' and 'A' Level syllabuses have undergone major changes, notable ones include the deletion of various Additional Maths topics (such as relative velocity and factor formulae for trigonometry) at the secondary school level, as well as the less rigorous H1/H2/H3 system replacing the C/Further Mathematics curriculum. All these in the name of "teach less, learn more". Fanciful-sounding mantra aside, are we really progressing in this new education order, or in actual fact regressing?

ANS: In my opinion, the changes are not fundamental. Our school graduates are doing well, in fact better, than my generation in universities here and abroad.

QN: As an extremely seasoned Mathematics educator who has contributed much to our system, based on your observations and professional interactions, how would you rate the younger generation of maths teachers (those in their 20s and early 30s) as far as teaching competency and knowledgeability of subject matter are concerned?

ANS:This is not possible to answer without a well-conceived research. Based on opinion alone, however, I am excited with the teachers we have in the system, the new entries as well as seasoned veterans. We always complain of the work but we work hard. The system has a way to filter out those who came in half-heartedly. If they do not enjoy teaching, they will find out and leave after a while.

QN: Earlier this year Member of Parliament Miss Indranee Rajah reckoned that private tuition isn't necessary as schools are more than capable of meeting the learning needs of students. Your take on this?

ANS: I have the same opinion.

Tutoring may be necessary for some students who need more individual help and many school are already offering this.

In my thinking, if parents want to provide and can afford remediation / enrichment then they should be clear of its purpose. For example, students who like art may take up more specialized classes in art to hone their techniques. Those who like writing can join creative writing classes at the community clubs or the more expensive enterprises. Those who enjoy a bit of mathematical sparring may enroll in programmes that provide such opportunities.

QN: You have travelled widely and participated in many teaching exchanges/conferences abroad. Till date which was your most memorable and why?

ANS: I always enjoy 'borrowing' classes of students in schools that I visit and teach a lesson or two. Just in the first two months of the year alone, I had the pleasure of teaching a Year 2 class twice in London. In Seattle, I taught Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 4, Grade 6 and Grade 8 classes all in a day. I was impressed by how the older students in this school came up one by one to shake my hand and say welcome. Later, they did the same to say thank you for the lesson. In a suburban school near Minneapolis, a snow storm prevented me from teaching a kindergarten class but I had the chance to teach Grades 1, 2, 4 and 5 on a day when the weather decided to cooperate. And just yesterday, I had a good time doing an open lesson with a Primary 1 class in a Singapore school. Why? It is fascinating to hear the students' thinking and to watch them solve problems even as they learn.

QN: Our 15 year olds have shown a marked improvement in the 2013 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, coming in amongst the top five in every area including Mathematics. Your thoughts?

ANS: I think you meant PISA2012 (there was no PISA in 2013). Singapore did well in the previous PISA. I am not sure why you said a marked improvement.

They students, expectedly, did well. I would not say the improvements were significant. But PISA findings did indicate that our 15-year-olds are also capable of using what they learn in new situations. PISA items are not the typical textbook or examination style questions. A lot of the tasks are embedded in real, authentic context.

Editor's Note: We wish to apologize for the clerical error; the results released in December 2013 were with regards to the PISA administered earlier in 2012. It is held once every 3 years. Our statement about the marked improvement in performance was made in relation to the fact that Singapore had placed fifth in reading literacy and fourth in science literacy during the 2009 assessment, yet succeeded in climbing up to the third position for both reading and science literacy in the 2012 version of the assessment.

QN: What sort of legacy in education do you hope to leave behind when you ride out into the sunset?

I have no such grand ambition. I see myself doing a job to improve mathematics teaching here and elsewhere.

It has been truly wonderful talking to you Dr Yeap; at this point we like to wish you every success in your educational ventures, and may you always maintain faith in that generous spirit of sharing your wisdom anytime, everywhere!