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Be less 'uptight' about times tables, urges Singaporean maths mastery expert

Maths consultant Dr Yeap Ban Har tells Tes how he thinks England's maths lessons are changing – and what his country envies about the school system here

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Maths consultant Dr Yeap Ban Har tells Tes how he thinks England's maths lessons are changing – and what his country envies about the school system here

England is too “uptight” in its push for pupils to learn times tables, according to an influential Singaporean maths expert.

Dr Yeap Ban Har spent 10 years at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, a country that has played a leading role in the development of the "maths mastery" techniques that are increasingly common in UK classrooms.

Dr Ban Har, who is now technical consultant to the Maths - No Problem! set of mastery textbooks, told Tes about the changes he has seen in maths teaching in England over the past six years.

“The biggest change is that the primary schools I visit now no longer set children by perceived ability,” said the maths expert, who is also director of curriculum and professional development at an autism-oriented school in Singapore.

He added that England needs to be "less uptight" about times tables – saying they are important but that, with practice, children will learn them.

Times tables are already part of the national curriuclum, but the government has proposed introducing a national times table test in Year 4 from 2019, saying: "There is strong evidence to show that being able to recall multiplication tables with fluency plays a crucial role in being able to solve more complex mathematical problems."

Last year, Singapore topped the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) international league tables in maths, while England came in at 27th.

So what does Dr Ban Har think is done well in England – and where is there room for improvement?

1. What is the biggest change in the teaching of maths you have seen between your first visit to England and now?

I have seen a real shift in teaching since 2011. The biggest change is that the primary schools I visit now no longer set children by perceived ability; they understand the importance of whole-class teaching and keeping the class together on the same topic rather than accelerating to new content.

Another big change is that teachers now let children explore a problem together and have incorporated intelligent and varied practice into their lessons. 

2. What do you think still needs to change?

Schools invite me to train or observe their teachers because they want to continue to improve their maths teaching. They are already on the journey towards teaching for mastery and by using what they learn in the course, which is based on research and theories, they won’t be doing anything wrong. 

But it is a journey, not a destination, and I encourage all schools to use lesson study as a powerful tool to improve their teaching.

 3. Is there anything about the teaching of maths in England that you think Singapore could learn from?

I am impressed by how teachers in England work together to plan their children’s learning experiences. Because the schools over here are smaller, it is easier for teachers to work closely together and work on the learning experience and ensure that all children have the same experience. This is more difficult to achieve in Singapore because we have larger schools, with between six and 15 classes per year group, which makes it more difficult for staff to collaborate and ensure consistency.

I also see a huge amount of enthusiasm over here. Maybe because teaching for mastery is still a relatively new concept in England, there’s a novelty value, but I see a huge amount of enthusiasm. While teachers in Singapore are more confident that they are doing it right, they do lack that passion I see here.

4. What is the most common misconception about maths mastery that you have come across?

There is still an over-emphasis in England with basic skills – that if a child can master something, then all they can do is times tables. We need to be less uptight about learning times tables in England. It’s important that kids know their number facts but they will learn their tables with practice anyway. People don’t understand that mastery is actually about problem-solving.

 5. Which countries does Singapore look to for ideas on improving maths teaching?

Traditionally, Singapore has looked to published research from England, the United States and Australia. The Singaporean system has been heavily influenced by England’s [1982] Cockcroft report.

Singapore looks to the world for ideas on improving all aspects of education, not just maths. We are such a small country that we have to look outwards for support. The ministry of education ensures there is time and funding for teachers to do this and it is written into our professional development.

For example, newly appointed department heads take a management development course, which includes a foreign study trip. The subject lead will select a school from another country they want to learn from and make the links with that school.

All teachers have professional development leave, a sabbatical if you like, to construct their own learning. For example, I’ve linked up with a teacher in Thailand. More recently I visited Finland with my colleagues to see what they do and what we could learn from them.

 For ideas on lesson study, we go to Japan.

6. What would shock Singaporean teachers about teaching in England?

Believe it or not, teachers from Singapore would be shocked by the small class sizes in England. Schools in Singapore have up to 40 children per class in key stage 2. They might also be surprised that teachers in England are often supported by teaching assistants, which we don’t have in Singapore.

7. And vice versa?

Children in Singapore come from a variety of cultural backgrounds with a variety of languages, such as Chinese, Malay or Indian languages, such as Tamil, spoken at home. That means that maths is taught in English – the second language of the teacher and their pupils.

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