Developing Number Sense: The Singapore Solution

By Ricky Mikelman

Developing a strong number sense in young students is one of the most important jobs of a math educator. Number sense is a powerful predictor of future math success. It lays a solid foundation for higher-level math learning, from basic addition and subtraction all the way through complex algebra. In addition, the Common Core State Standards in math call for increased attention to number sense.

When a child fails to develop number sense, the lack can be felt over a lifetime. Just about every adult activity requires number sense—from figuring out how much a college education will cost to purchasing a car to making retirement investments.

As educators, there’s nothing more satisfying as knowing we’ve successfully taught number sense and our students have successfully grasped it. We can be assured our children will be ready for assessments, complex math, college, and the rest of their lives.

Number sense defined

While there’s general consensus about the importance of number sense, there is less agreement about the definition of number sense. In a nutshell, number sense is a student’s fluidity and flexibility with numbers. The student understands what the numbers mean, the magnitude of numbers, and their relationships and is able to perform key skills, including mental math calculation. Just as important, the student is able to apply those numbers in the real world.

Yet defining number sense is just the beginning. A bigger issue is how educators can best support their students in developing number sense.

Why Singapore strategies?

More and more schools are successfully using Singapore Math strategies in their curriculum to ensure their youngest students build this most critical skill. What makes Singapore Math so powerful and highly regarded is its emphasis on the development of strong number sense, excellent mental-math skills, and a deep understanding of place value.

We know that children love hands-on learning no matter what the subject—math is no exception. It makes math fun. And it builds math confidence.

Despite this fact and because of their own learning experiences, some teachers still believe teaching number sense is about teaching numbers. All too often, they teach math in terms of rules and formulas and memorization. But their students don’t really “get” it—or they forget it two weeks later.

For teachers and students in Singapore, developing number sense is an intuitive process. Teachers use a curriculum grounded in concrete, pictorial, and abstract computational strategies to make math more meaningful and fun, as well as more relevant. In a typical Singapore classroom—or U.S. classroom using Singapore strategies—you’ll see students engaged in hands-on learning experiences using concrete objects such as chips, dice, or paper clips. They are drawing pictorial representations of the mathematical concepts they learn. They are solving math problems in an abstract way by using numbers and symbols.

The teachers who embrace these strategies are engaging students in active discussion, debate, critical thinking, exploration, and group work. They’re using bean sticks, bundles, pipe cleaners, and other everyday manipulatives to make learning tangible and real.

Ask yourself: Are you bringing daily opportunities into your classroom for your students to explore, play with, manipulate, and talk about numbers? Are you introducing fun and meaningful ways to build their computation skills in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division?

Start building number sense the Singapore way. SDE offers a webinar that goes into more depth about how to get started. Check out Building Number Sense: Student-Centered Singapore Math Strategies by award-winning educator and math coach Ricky Mikelman.

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