OldDogOne of the oldest proverbial sayings in the English language is, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  If there are any of you out there that still insist on calculating math solutions with a slide rule (or who even remember what a slide rule is!), you know what I mean.

As the march of time presses on, I tend to resist change, especially for change for change’s sake. If something has worked well in the past, whether it be a treasured family recipe or a time honored math curriculum, why risk tinkering with it?  … To make it better, of course!

Wilson Hill Academy is very excited to offer two grammar math level courses this fall using Math in Focus, formerly called Singapore Math. And I, formerly a diehard Saxon Math advocate, am very excited about teaching it. I am confident that learning new strategies with this incredible approach to math instruction will promote a stronger and deeper understanding of essential math concepts for my students.

What is the history of Math in Focus?

The original pedagogical strategy for Math in Focus was developed for the nation of Singapore under the supervision of the Singaporean Minister of Education and introduced as the Primary Mathematics Series in 1982. For almost twenty years, this program remained the only series used in Singaporean classrooms. The program has a unique framework with a focus on building problem-solving skills and an in-depth understanding of essential math skills. The strategies used address the issue of students having difficulty solving word problems in the early years of their math education and focuses on building meaning to learn concepts and skills for a stronger foundation.  During this twenty year implementation, 4th- 8th grade math students from the nation of Singapore reversed their performance rating from one of the lowest to one of the highest in the world.

Because of the success of this program and the interest generated, the U. S. educational publisher Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, together with the leading educational publisher in Singapore, published and distributed what came to be marketed as Math in Focus.

What is the philosophy behind Math in Focus?

It is not the content that makes Math in Focus different from other curricula. Students will still wrestle with the concepts of division, multiplication, place value, fractions, ratios, etc. The key is that Math in Focus is a “visual approach” methodology using bar model drawing and other pictorial strategies that progressively lead a student from a concrete understanding of a particular math concept to an eventual abstract understanding of that same idea.  Students are taught “why something works” before they learn “how” it works.

When a student grasps that numbers and symbols have actual meaning, they approach problem solving with greater confidence and success.

What are the benefits of Math in Focus?

Though not exhaustive, some of the benefits of this particular approach to math instruction for students at the grammar stage include:

  • Encourages algebraic thinking, even among early leaners
  • Reduces complexity by spending as much time as needed to master a skill
  • Promotes a deeper understanding of essential math concepts by learning  the “why” before the “how” for any new concept introduced
  • Enhances problem solving skills  ( and this always comes in handy)
  • Causes an unexpected love of the subject

The “visual approach” teaching strategies integrate quite well with computer technology, especially in the online classroom environment. Students using digital pens alongside the teacher’s prepared interactive whiteboard will have limitless opportunities practice and hone new skills.

Which course is right for your child?

Most parents desire a math course that will challenge but not overwhelm their children, but which one?

This is where my experience and the wisdom gained through teaching students for the past fifteen years are invaluable. I am completely in agreement with the Math in Focus approach, and my past experience with Saxon Math has provided a vantage point that allows me to confidently suggest some guidelines as you consider enrolling your child in the grammar level math courses offered at Wilson Hill Academy this fall.

  • If your child has completed Saxon Math 6/5 or a comparable 5th grade math program, Math in Focus Level 5 would be the best choice.
  • If your child has completed Saxon Math 7/6 or a comparable 6th grade math program, Math in Focus Level 6 would be the best choice.

Do not be fooled by the numbers into thinking that your child will simply be “repeating” a level. Initially, I expect there will be a learning curve for students in both courses as some “new tricks” will be introduced. Eventually connections between the known and the unknown will be made. The “oohs” and “aahs” of these young pups will confirm it! And more importantly, they will be laying a solid foundation for Pre-Algebra and Algebra rather than pushing forward with the mechanics of math before they are properly prepared for the higher levels of abstraction.


Submitted by Sue Joslyn, WHA Math Instructor