What’s the evidence on Shanghai maths, expert reaction…

As Education Minister, Elizabeth Truss, visits Shanghai to investigate maths teaching, experts give their reactions to this style of teaching.

Comment from Professor David Reynolds, University of Southampton:

“China and other Pacific Rim countries use a very high proportion of whole class interactive teaching in Maths and the research evidence from the UK is overwhelming that these methods work here too. Simply maths is a subject where you need the teacher to carry it to children in an active fashion,because the chances of children discovering the bodies of knowledge themselves are not high.

Whole class interactive teaching was the heart of the last Labour Governments Numeracy and Literacy Strategies. But we need to remember that Shanghai China throws a lot of education at children because they attend school for many more days than English children do, and that Chinese parents are ferociously ambitious for their children to do well, which may not always happen here. Teaching methods, culture and parents are the likely explanation for Chinese success, in that order. ”

Anne Watson, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Education, University of Oxford, comments:

“Mathematics teaching in Shanghai is soundly based in Chinese culture and a particular kind of deep mathematical knowledge that teachers have. The cultural/philosophical background is that any major idea can be understood in a number of ways. The particular kind of knowledge is about the major ideas or concepts, and methods are taught around a key idea rather than as ends in themselves.

For example, a page from a Chinese early number textbook might focus on several ways to act out the fact that the important number 10 can be made from 7 and 3. A typical page from a European textbook for the same age might show one way of thinking of addition, and several random examples.

The focus in China is the underlying idea; in Europe and US it is the method. The best Chinese teachers have this knowledge because of the quality of their training, the quality of their textbooks and teaching guidance, and their continued entitlement to learn more about teaching. These three features depend on: a major commitment to preservice teacher education (3 or 4 years specialist training for primary school teachers in China); textbooks that are developed and trialled over a number of years by extensive and knowledgeable teams; and a commitment to provide ongoing professional development as an integral part of the job. No superficial importing of observable methods is going to match the results obtained by these features.”

Jeremy Hodgen, Professor of Mathematics Education, Department of Education and Professional Studies, King’s College London, comments:

“The educational improvements that countries like Singapore and South Korea have made over the past 50 years are impressive. However, we should be cautious about drawing direct lessons from overseas and certainly should avoid cherry-picking particular teaching approaches from the Pacific Rim.

In fact, the biggest factor influencing a country’s performance on international survey such as TIMSS or PISA appears to be the extent to which the country’s curriculum matches the curriculum being tested – and not particular teaching approaches.

A key factor in Shanghai may be the extent of private tutoring. Chinese policy-makers are worried about their students’ weaknesses in the application of mathematics, which is traditionally an area where English students do well. Nevertheless, we can learn things from overseas, for example, textbooks are often better than those in England. Looking closer to home, Germany has made some significant improvements to mathematics education, although these are no greater than those made as a result of the National Numeracy Strategy in England.” (Evidence: Askew, M., Hodgen, J., Hossain, S., & Bretscher, N. (2010). Values and variables: A review of mathematics education in high-performing countries. London: The Nuffield Foundation).

Professor of Education at Nottingham University and Deputy Chair of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, Andrew Noyes, comments:

“Success in learning mathematics depends on more than what can be seen in the classroom; the wider educational and cultural contexts are critically influential, as are attitudes to learning and mathematics that are acquired in the home. This might help to explain why Chinese students in UK schools achieve on average one and half GCSE grades higher in mathematics than do their white British peers.

Recent analysis of international comparison data suggests that the mathematics gap between the UK and East Asian countries does not increase between the ages of 10 and 16. More attention is therefore needed to establishing strong mathematics learning trajectories from early years and throughout primary schools.

We need better initial training and professional development for primary teachers, as ACME argued in its recent publication Empowering Teachers: success for learners (ACME, November 2013).”


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