Minnehaha Academy Blog

Algebra Starts in Kindergarten: Preparing Students for Success Part 3

Posted by Amy Barnard on Nov 27, 2018

2018-First-Grade-Classroom-Minnehaha-Academy-Minneapolis-Minnesota-7 (1)

How our Singapore Math Curriculum develops flexible thinking and the ability for abstraction

Recap: Why are We Doing This?

If you've read our previous post in this series, The Jobs That Don't Exist, you already know that more than half of the jobs our students will step into don't even exist today, and that so-called "soft" skills ranging from flexible thinking to persistence are equally or even more important than hard skills in the current and coming job market. 

Even in seemingly straightforward courses, like math, our instructors are working to make sure students are prepared with these skills.

Algebra Starts in Kindergarten

Research shows that across the nation, U.S. students fall apart at algebra.

“Algebra is the key that opens the door to higher levels of math,” explains Curriculum and Instructional Specialist Julie Winn. “But curricula in the U.S. aren’t designed to help kids make this jump.”

In response, Minnehaha Academy chose a system of math used in Asia that introduces abstract mathematical concepts years earlier than U.S. systems.

As early as kindergarten, students begin learning the building blocks for abstraction.

Students learn the “why” behind the numbers, understanding multiple ways to get into a problem, and gaining the ability to explain why their solution works.


First graders learn to estimate the number of seeds in a pumpkin based on its exterior, then counting and sorting the seeds by number.

Letting Go of the More-Harder-Better

The results of this program? Solid improvement.

“[We’ve seen] a much higher percentage of our kids go from Lower School into Middle School with a stronger conceptual understanding than before. They know how to do the work, and why it works,” says Winn.

Winn also challenges certain ingrained notions of rigor: “Rigor used to be defined as ‘more-harder-better’,“ she says. “But this can actually lead to pressure and failure.”

Instead, we want to continually set the bar just a bit beyond where students are right now and then empower them to be successful in reaching that new level, which is exactly the process we observe with Singapore Math.

The question is, how do we scaffold learning in such a way that students coming from every level and ability are knocking it out of the park on a regular basis, stretching and growing into a more well-rounded learner? Education should be a life-long journey, and if we can teach students how to keep reaching while they are here, then we have created a habit of learning that will serve them for a lifetime.”

Case Study: Not the Math Type

Teacher Alison Schmitz shares that one fourth grader had already labeled herself as “more of the artsy type,” and often found math difficult to grasp.

Under the new program (and with guidance from Schmitz), the student began to think differently about numbers and about her own ability to “do math.” The increased use of visualization for abstract concepts in Singapore Math was particularly helpful to her.

Now a seventh grader, this girl sees ongoing success in her math classes and no longer identifies as “not the math type.”

Schmitz affirms that this new approach to math really prepares students to succeed when it comes time for algebra.

Helping Parents Help their Students

This new approach to math isn't without some challenges. Most specifically, parents may initially feel intimidated by the homework their children ask for help on.

Because we've seen the positive fruit of this system of learning, our faculty is motivated to help parents understand how to help their students. 

To that end, math specialist Alison Schmitz schedules monthly, 45-minute math parent sessions to help parents better understand what their kids are working on. This empowers parents to help their kids succeed.


First graders learning about symmetry and creating a symmetrical butterfly in an integrated art and math session.

Helping New Students Adjust

Parents aren't the only ones who sometimes need a little booster shot of math help. Because our curriculum puts students ahead of many of their peers in abstract mathematical concepts, Schmitz also offers summer sessions to help new students become familiar with concepts and strategies that we use in our math classrooms.

She meets with new students during the semester to fill in any gaps they may have in their learning to ensure that they will complete the year on-par with their peers.

Ultimately, our faculty is committed to helping each student build solid skills in abstraction and the ability to see multiple to solutions to a given problem setting them up for future success.


Topics: STEM, Lower School

Subscribe to Email Updates