Australia v Singapore

This post is on ACARA’s comparative study of the Australian and Singaporean curricula. It will be, thank God, our last post on the literature supporting ACARA’s curriculum review; previous posts are here, here, here and here.

As we noted, ACARA’s Key Findings document somehow concluded that the Australian Curriculum was broadly similar, in style and difficulty, to the four other curricula considered, including Singapore’s:

Evidence from these comparative studies identifies how high performing education systems are incorporating 21st century capabilities/competencies into their curricula. …

Recent developments in these curricula also include increasing emphasis on essential/core concepts at the expense of detailed statements of mandatory content …

Across the four curricula compared, there was general consistency in the levels of breadth, depth and rigour within and between learning areas/subjects.

Could this be true? The answer is, of course, “No”. Singapore’s educational outcomes are not remotely similar to Australia’s and, whatever is going on in Singapore’s schools, it is not remotely similar to what happens in Australia. So, how could ACARA arrive at such a patently false conclusion?

One of the Singaporean documents that ACARA points to again and again is 21st Century Competencies. That’s the whole-student stuff that ACARA loves to go on about: inventive thinking, responsibility and so on. We don’t know how this works in Singapore in practice, but the fact these competencies overlay the Singapore curriculum seems to distract ACARA from the curriculum itself, perhaps deliberately so.

The real question is, what is in the Singaporean Curriculum and how does it compare? To this end, ACARA’s comparative study considers various subjects at various year levels. For each subject and level, there is a reasonably extensive discussion together with a summary of the “breadth”, “depth” and “rigour” as high (“comprehensive” or “challenging”), medium or low; these concepts are defined in Chapter 1 of the comparative study. In the case of mathematics, ACARA compares the Singaporean and Australian curricula at three different levels. We shall consider each of these comparisons in turn.


Year 2 Australia and Primary 3 Singapore

The first comparison is of the third year of schooling — Singapore has no Prep/Foundation year — which may not be the most apt comparison. It won’t affect the conclusions, but Singapore P3 students are typically a year older than Australian Year 2 students. Furthermore ACARA indicates that there is a reasonably clear sense of “numeracy” instruction in Singaporean kindergartens, which, then, should perhaps be regarded as more of a Prep year. But, again, it won’t matter.

ACARA summarises the breadth/depth/rigour of Australian (and Singaporean) Year 2 mathematics as high, which will come as a surprise to many an attentive parent. How did ACARA get there? Well, for breadth, there’s a lot of stuff listed in the Australian Curriculum, so there you have it. As for depth:

The year-level descriptions for Year 2 reveal significant cognitive demand by referring to the Mathematics proficiencies contained in the content descriptions. Understanding includes building robust knowledge of adaptable and transferrable concepts, and in Year 2 this is evident in students making connections, partitioning and combining numbers and identifying and describing the relationships between the four number operations. …

And so on. And, there’s rigour:

The level of rigour in the [Year 2 Australian Curriculum: mathematics] is regarded as challenging as it places a considerable demand on students to engage in reasoning and problem-solving. Problem-solving requires students to make choices, investigate problem situations and communicate their thoughts. Reasoning develops the capacity for logical thought and actions such as explaining answers and the processes of solving problems. …

Anyone with any familiarity with Australian primary schools knows that these grandiose claims are utter nonsense. Whatever the teacher might be attempting, the kids aren’t reasoning and problem-solving: they’re simply screwing around, if only because they have insufficient knowledge or skills to reason or problem-solve with. They are learning nothing through these games.

To properly appreciate how this plays out, one needs to ignore the (supposed) deeper meaning and look at the actual content. Two extracts from ACARA’s summary will suffice. First, Australia:

By the end of Year 2, [Australian] students count to and from 1000 and recognise increasing and decreasing number sequences. They perform simple addition and subtraction calculations using a range of strategies and represent multiplication and division by grouping into sets. Year 2 students learn to divide collections and shapes into halves, quarters and eighths and associate collections of Australian coins with their value.

And, Singapore:

By the end of Primary 3, [Singaporean] students can work with numbers to 10 000, including increasing and decreasing number sequences. They add and subtract four-digit numbers and know their multiplication and division facts [sic] for 6, 7, 8 and 9 (having learnt 2, 5 and 10 [and 3 and 4] in Primary 2). They are introduced to the concepts of quotient and remainder via sharing and apply their skills to problem-solving. They can compare and add and subtract related fractions with denominators up to 12. Students add and subtract money in decimal notation and apply their skills to problem-solving. [emphasis added]

Yep, two peas in a pod.


Year 6 Australia and Primary 6 Singapore

Singapore has two version of Primary 5-6: Standard, and Foundation, “which revisits some of the important concepts and skills learnt in the previous years”. That is, if a Singaporean kid doesn’t sufficiently grasp the earlier material, the basic arithmetic, then there are consequences. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

ACARA’s study compares Year 6 Australian mathematics with Singapore’s Standard Primary 6. Predictably, Australia scores full marks again on breadth/depth/rigour, using the same absurd method of evaluation.

Formally, the Singaporean and Australian curricula are more similar in content at this year level. The obvious and important difference is Singapore’s incorporation of rate and ratio problems, and the beginnings of algebra. In Australia,

By the end of Year 6, [Australian] students recognise the properties of prime, composite, square and triangular numbers. … They are introduced to negative numbers through practical applications in areas such as temperature. Students connect fractions, decimals and percentages as different representations of the same number and solve problems involving the addition and subtraction of related fractions. Students make connections between the powers of 10 and the multiplication and division of decimals. They add, subtract and multiply decimals and divide decimals where the result is rational and locate fractions and integers on a number line. They calculate a simple fraction of a quantity.  

Singapore is similar, in the sense of being totally different:

The [Singapore syllabus] builds on the depth and fluency of Mathematics established in previous years. For example, operations with decimals are considered complete and time is given to completing mastery of the four operations with fractions without the use of calculators. Mechanical fluency in number operations is focused on applications to a minimum of clearly specified problem types in the areas of percentages, ratio and speed. The comprehensiveness of the problem sets offers Primary 6 students a sense of mastery and confidence in applying Mathematics in useful ways.

In Australia, this is, of course, unthinkable. You can “cover” primes and decimals and fractions and so on, but if your kids don’t have the needed facility with arithmetic then the coverage will necessarily be wafer-thin and meaningless. But of course, ACARA provides the excuse reason:

Although their ages are comparable at Year 6/Primary 6, the fact that Singaporean students have received many of their introductory mathematical experiences via a well-defined, national pre-school program means they are able to spend additional time on mastery of basic processes (e.g. tables and algorithms) and move more rapidly through their respective curricula during the early primary years.

So, Singaporean kids are able to do significant arithmetic problems in Primary 6 because of all that “pre-school” work? The difference has nothing to do with Australia’s fetish for exploration and problem-solving? Sure, keep telling yourself that; it’ll make it true.

Whatever. ACARA continues:

This difference is still evident in Year 6/Primary 6, where successful Singapore students have acquired greater breadth and depth on their mathematical journey because of their earlier exposure to the development of basic and necessary skills[emphasis added]

Basic and necessary skills? Of course they are basic and necessary. So why the Hell doesn’t ACARA emphasise their teaching? This is the obvious, critical message of ACARA’s comparative study with Singapore. But ACARA happily, deliberately, leaves this message buried on page 73, where the only person who will read it is an idiot blogger with too much time on his hands.

And, worse than burying the message, ACARA immediately denies the message:

Students in both countries are well prepared to commence Mathematics in secondary school.

This statement is way beyond false; it is an obscene denial of reality.


Year 9/10/10A Australia and O-Level/AM 3-4 Singapore

Once again, Australia scores full marks for breadth/depth/rigour and, once again, this is fantasy.

We won’t attempt to summarise ACARA’s comparison at this level. The preparation in primary school tells you pretty much everything you need to know, and the conclusions are obvious and inevitable. The detailed analysis is complicated by the significant streaming in Singapore, with different course content for different students. For a quick summary, the reader can compare the table of Australian content (pages 80-81) with Singapore’s (pages 82-83). ACARA concludes:

At the end of Year 10, successful Australian students should have a broad range of numerical, algebraic, geometrical and statistical concepts and skills enabling them to investigate and solve a wide variety of problems including those from real-world situations. They should have the necessary knowledge and familiarity with mathematical processes to be well prepared to continue their study of Mathematics in Years 11 and 12.

At the end of Secondary 4, successful Singaporean students will be similarly equipped with an even broader range of concepts and skills. They are likely to have a more sophisticated knowledge and facility with mathematical processes enabling them to continue their mathematical education at a higher level.

Just the same, and totally different.


What to make of this? What does ACARA make of this? As we have noted, the Key Findings tries its hardest to pretend the Singapore-Australia differences simply don’t exist. Such pretence is much harder, however, when the contrary facts are crowding the room. So, ACARA concludes their discussion of the mathematics curricula with the excuses reasons:

Singapore has a centralised system of education. The national Mathematics Curriculum is closely monitored and implemented in well-resourced schools by highly trained teachers, most of whom are subject specialists and use mandated or recommended textbooks. Teachers are supported with instructional or pedagogical guides and they undergo regular school inspections and audits. Pedagogy is highly influenced by various forms of testing and high stakes examinations. Singapore’s small size allows for greater control over the whole education system, meaning that national directives and policies and feedback from schools can be quickly communicated. [emphasis added]

And somehow, as ACARA then explains, all of that is impossible in Australia.

Singapore really is a foreign country; they do things really differently there. ACARA can pretend this is not true, or that there is some unavoidable, Everest reason why it is true, why Australia can’t do much of the same. ACARA have tried both on. But it doesn’t matter. Either way, they are lying through their teeth.



7 Replies to “Australia v Singapore”

  1. One of my favourite books along these lines is E.D. Hirsch “Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know”. Written for an American audience, but it makes me wonder “What does every Australian need to know?”

    1. The first that they need to know is that there are things that they need to know. They will not learn this from ACARA.

  2. Thanks for going through this Marty. I find it really interesting that they have obviously outlined the key differences and even (in my opinion) one of the most important things that they do in Singapore that is not done here (repetition until mastery)…. then ignore it.

    Interesting, and frustrating.

  3. Yup. Spent years talking and working with Singaporeans… and it’s pretty clear I’m not even sure these people could locate it on a map.

    Well noted is Singaporean streaming. In addition, I have heard hundreds, if not thousands of tales of religious tutoring in mathematics and science since pre-kindy ages, with children’s days mapped out from 7am-8pm (and then later to 10pm at night) if they are to succeed. And due to the streamed nature of the schools, they either pay through the nose for the tutors or private school access, to guarantee they have the foundational skills required to gain admittance at university to law, engineering, medicine etc, or they go overseas.

    Meanwhile, I’m teaching my own child phonics and reading now because Apparently the kindy isn’t allowed to, and I’ve been doing maths with them and plan to have song rote learnt times tables just like I bloody did.

    And you know what- MINE LOVES IT- they love being able to start looking at the book with me and have fun. Shooting ourselves in the foot for this ‘developmentally appropriate’ crap.

    Look at year 8 acara now- apparently kid’s aren’t able to understand calculating formulae of compound shapes until year 9.

    We’re doing poorly in maths because we have ‘It’s ok to be bad at maths’ people at the helm in too many areas, and too many people who are afraid of challenging kids and letting them see what they can achieve, either because not teaching core skills would help kids think above their station, or because of hubris, fear and stupidity.

    Gosh, I hope it’s the conspiracy option, but occam’s razor tells us that it is likely just maladministration. Wait till you see (in 50 years time) the curriculum realise that maybe having constant sources of cognitive load drain in the classroom (tablets) is not the best thing for students (much less to say about the effect of them+multicommunicative formats on gray matter). (1)(2).

    Of course Singapore outperforms us in mathematics. I’d wager they’re just as religious about academia life as you hear in Japan…

    They certainly didn’t note the huge, huge, huge issues in economic disparity in Singapore and that maybe education is meant to raise people out of poverty, not entrench it, but who am I to comment

    (1). Since tablets became prominent the numbers of children seeking speech pathology grew 300% (see parliament inquiry regarding speech path seeking in 2015 or 2016, from 2010).
    Note that screens are associated with speech and learning delay, with ~1 hr a day minimum associated with a 1 year delay, and that a screen cannot replace a real life person in learning to talk. (90’s research using a tv vs. IRL speechie).

    (2). More recently, social media was associated with significant gray matter decline [0%,60%) in teens using social media more than 1 hr a day. Recently some theorised and coined ‘multicommunication’ referring to things like “Slack” and “Discord.” Due to their shared commonalities (notifications, messages, multiple things to see and interact with on the screen), I (personally) believe that many of these things are as akin to social media and just as dangerous.

    I don’t know what to do about it but I’m working on purging it from my own life and removing all notifications and ‘black holes of time’ where possible.

    This doesn’t mean all devices are bad, per se, it just means, quite simply:

    Kids who are still learning self-regulation skills do not need extra burdens on their ability to self-regulate time and impulse control, rather they need assistance in dealing with it.

    Who would guess that magpies like shiny things, and the monkey brains of young, emotional people seeking validation and self-worth would be drawn to systems that create dopamine loops and our brains would adapt to seek them out like cocaine or cigarettes. Especially in this scary time, where it’s clear that half the kids, even if they aren’t adept at some academic pursuits, can see the ineptitude and apathy at the top of the chain.

    1. Thanks very much, Matty. I am sure you are correct, that Singaporean students are under a hell fo a lot of pressure, with extra tutoring or whatnot. One can argue how much we want to Singaporeanise our education. What no sane person can argue is that Australian educational outcomes are remotely like Signapore’s. And, no sane person can argue that the significant difference between Australia and Singapore is Singapore’s devotino fo (ACARA’s notion) of “problem-solving”. That is just madness.

      Of course you are also correct on the idiocy of the “devices” in school (and elsewhere). God knows how many billions of kids will be screwed up before some sense kicks in.

  4. It’s easy to make a fancy document, but harder to actually do the teaching. Yes, there’s some fluffy screwed up content, but the bigger issue is probably the lack of drill/retrieval and overemphasis of “higher order thinking”. In other words, the how is the bigger issue than the what.

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