Shanghai’s maths teachers have the formula for learning

Earlier this month, I welcomed 68 secondary mathematics teachers from Shanghai to Britain who spent three weeks teaching in our schools. Now in its second year, the Shanghai-England teacher exchange is one of the most valuable education initiatives undertaken by the British government over the past few years.

Why are we so keen to learn about Shanghai mathematics teaching? Because Shanghai, a city of 24-million people, tops the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s international league table for maths achievement, and by a considerable margin. (China does not participate as a country but is represented by Shanghai and Hong Kong.)

At the age of 15, Shanghai pupils are studying work equivalent to the second year of A-level in Britian, whereas British pupils are still studying for their general certificate of secondary education. What’s more, the children of the poorest 30% of Shanghai’s population are outstripping at mathematics the children of our wealthiest 10% in England. Clearly, Shanghai teachers are doing something right.

There are many who try to attribute Shanghai’s achievement to supposed sociocultural explanations – “tiger mothers”, China’s growing economy, or the deferential nature of Chinese society. These crude national stereotypes are not the issue. We can see that Shanghai teaching is very different from what we too often see in Britain.

This could be seen from the BBC documentary Chinese School, aired over the summer. I recently met the science teacher from the programme, who has taught in English schools for the past 10 years.

Having started her career in China’s Xi’an province, Jun Yang-Williams is in a privileged position to compare schools in both countries. She wrote to me: “It seems to me that British schools have almost dismissed the ‘teacher-led’ teaching style … Although the ‘teacher-led’ pedagogy is seen as passive, it does not necessarily jeopardise learning outcomes. Students are in fact more proactive and more responsible for their learning.”

Last year, Professor David Reynolds of Southampton University and postgraduate research student Zhenzhen Miao tested children aged nine and 10 from Southampton and Nanjing in China, using maths tests from the research project Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss). The average Chinese score was 83%. The average British score was 56%. The researchers videoed lessons in both countries. In Chinese classrooms, whole-class teaching made up 72% of lesson time, compared with 24% in Britain.

Shanghai maths teaching is based on high-quality resources. All schools follow the same textbook, published by the Shanghai education commission and revised annually. In British schools, according to Timss, only 10% of maths teachers used textbooks as a basis for their teaching.

An enormous amount of thought and care has gone into the construction of the Shanghai mathematics curriculum, and it is anything but a straitjacket for teachers. These high-quality resources simply provide the foundation upon which creative and imaginative teaching can be built. No teacher is delivering someone else’s script.

British primary and secondary teachers involved in the Shanghai exchange have returned home cheered by how interactive whole-class teaching can be. Shanghai teachers constantly ask and answer questions, inviting pupils to demonstrate solutions on the board and quizzing them.

Shanghai maths teaching works because it is meticulous. No pupil understanding is left to chance or accident: every step of a lesson is deliberate, purposeful and precise. If the Shanghai teacher exchange can show enough teachers in other places the merits of such practice, it will have been a resounding success. – © Guardian News & Media 2016

Nick Gibb is Britain’s schools minister.

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