July 26, 2016

A Comparison of the Top Two Homeschool Math Curricula: Singapore and Saxon

There are dozens of math curricula used by homeschoolers. Some have been written specifically for homeschoolers instead of a classroom.  Some are used in mass education settings, but have special homeschool editions for where classroom control and/or state testing readiness is not of prime importance. Saxon Math is one of these.  Yet others, like Singapore Math, are usable for one-on-one education as-is.  These two math curricula are among the most widely-discussed and widely-used among homeschoolers.

Saxon Math was invented by a math teacher in 1981 and is known for its incremental approach and producing good college entrance scores.  Singapore Math is the official math curriculum of the city of Singapore.  Its users have won top ranking in international comparisons several times.

The biggest thing you’ll notice, just looking at the two side by side, is that there are far fewer problems in Singapore.  This isn’t because  Singapore is less rigorous (far from it!) but because Singapore Math concentrates on getting kids to understand why something is done a certain way, having them think through it, and less focused on getting them to memorize algorithms (practice, practice, practice, otherwise known as “drill and kill”).

Singapore focuses on fewer, more crucial skills in the early years than most U.S. math programs do, getting kids really solid in the very basic basics before going on to more complicated math.  In most U.S. math programs, including Saxon, it’s a much broader scope that does not go as deep.  For some kids, not going as deep means that as they go along in those programs, they have to slow down in order to catch up.  Of course, in mass education settings slowing down equals getting left behind, but in homeschooling, it’s possible.

It’s funny, but I’ve seen this in a couple of other areas of my life.  I’m a pianist, and I was classically trained.  When I was seven, practicing finger-strength drills and scales and arpeggios was b-o-r-ing.  Learning how to transpose was boring.  My friends were playing popular top 40 tunes, for crying out loud!  Highly simplified, but still.  They were playing fun stuff.  I wasn’t.  I was going deep.

But by high school, most of them had quit playing.  I was taking lessons to prepare for possible entry to Julliard or another similar music school.  Not that I ended up going that route, but I was prepared for it.

The other area is my kids’ ballet school.  It’s connected with the Vaganova Academy in Russia, which was originally the teaching school of the czar’s ballet company.  Yes, Indiana has one of the top schools in the country–who knew?

When my daughter first started there and started performing with the outreach group at various festivals, sometimes I was taken aback at how unadvanced her age group seemed.  The older kids were blowing people away, but it seemed to me that other kids that were the same age in other schools could do so much more.  I was afraid our school was holding them back.

Then a more-experienced ballet mom explained to me that the Vaganova method really grounds them in basic skills while protecting their growing muscles, bones and joints.  They were not being permitted to do those fancy moves at their ages because of the potential for injury, and because they simply weren’t strong enough yet to do those things perfectly. So much of dance is muscle memory, and the teachers didn’t want the kids learning to do those things imperfectly and then having to relearn them later.  It’s part of the philosophy behind the Vaganova method.

The next year, I saw another one of my daughter’s performances, and I was just amazed at how far her class had come in that year.  They’d reached a level of strength and growth that permitted them to finally do that more complicated choreography, and do it perfectly–not just trying to do it, but doing it apparently effortlessly and cleanly.  When I saw them dance and saw the dancers from same schools I’d seen before, it was very obvious my daughter’s class had jumped in skill level, nearly straight up.  Her class was obviously more advanced than the same-aged dancers at the other school and did very well in international competition that year(and the year since).  It was because of going deep with the basics.

Singapore Math is very much the same way.  It doesn’t have kids doing probability, algebra concepts and geometry in first grade (although it does lay foundations for those things).  By fourth grade, it’s covering much of the same ground that U.S. programs do, but going deeper, with many problems of the difficulty seen in the typical 6th grade programs.  By the end of the 6th grade book, it’s covered what’s typically done in 8th grade in the U.S., and the next step is algebra.

If your child needs a lot of step-by-step and a lot of repetition, you really can’t beat Saxon for the elementary grades, as long as your child learns well from textbooks and does not have a different learning style.  Some kids, however, catch on to math concepts fast and get bored and turned off by the repetition.  For them Singapore is a great alternative.







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