Are the Chinese that much better than us?

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Children of cleaners in Shanghai outperform the sons and daughters of UK doctors and lawyers in global maths tests, according to the OECD. But is the reason for this down to good teachers, the Chinese culture, or something else entirely?

There is a huge emphasis being placed on improving English and maths skills across the UK, so much so that the government is trying to think of innovative ways to teach these ‘difficult’ subjects to British children. One idea that is being progressed is to look at teaching methods internationally, in particular China, where maths attainment scores have become the envy of the world.

Recently, pupils in Shanghai came top in the international PISA league table of numeracy skills – with 15-year-olds from the Chinese capital an average of three years ahead of their counterparts in England. As a result, and as part of the Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme, we have seen exchange visits between Britain and China, with the first group of Chinese maths teachers visiting Britain recently to share their techniques with both teachers and pupils alike.

The Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme is a key element of the government’s wider £11 million Maths Hubs programme. As well as Chinese teachers travelling to the UK to deliver master classes, a number of top maths teachers from England have visited Shanghai to learn about teaching maths.

Could Chinese methods work for us?

It may be difficult to believe, but data from the 2012 PISA study, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) a year ago, showed that the children of cleaners in Shanghai and Singapore outperform the sons and daughters of British doctors and lawyers in international maths tests.

According to the OECD, the city of Shanghai has some of the most competent maths pupils and, collectively, the finest maths teachers in the world. These teachers tend to focus on the basics of maths, breaking the curriculum up into manageable chunks and allowing a substantial amount of time for practice.

The short trial of the Chinese system at a number of UK schools has been organised to see if adopting Chinese-style teaching will work in our education system. More precisely, the government wants to know if Chinese teachers can show UK teachers how to teach maths.

However, bear in mind that, although Shanghai might be the city where some of the world’s best maths results can be found, that is not to say the reasons for this are to be found in the classroom alone. In Shanghai, children are taught with rigour from an early age, so that the solid foundations they acquire come into their own when the maths gets more challenging in secondary school. What’s also always observed in Shanghai classrooms is how well disciplined and attentive the Chinese children are – and this is where the whole Chinese teacher exchange premise might produce very little that is actually of use in the UK.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that some good will come out of embedding Shanghai’s top maths teachers in British primary schools to share their world-class approach to maths teaching – and so help further raise standards in the subject.

What might we learn?

Under the exchange programme, the visiting teachers will try out new methods on how to help struggling pupils deal with homework and feedback, as well as giving practical demonstrations and master classes for school staff.

At the same time, English maths teachers will spend time in Chinese schools to learn more about the nation’s teaching techniques. The methods and practices that are shared through the programme will then be passed on to other teachers and schools in England.

There are a number of differences between the UK and Chinese education system, which may prove to be food for thought for British schools. For example:

  • In Shanghai, primary school maths teachers are specialists who only teach that subject, and nearly all are maths graduates.
  • They typically deliver only two lessons a day, with other time spent on marking and planning as well as collaboration with other maths specialists.
  • Teachers in China teach ten or 12 classes a week.
  • In China, teachers have more time to give students feedback and to have teaching research groups, and they can observe other teachers teaching in the classroom. They can also engage themselves in a lot of professional development activities.
  • In China, you might have a 50-minute lesson and spend 48 minutes on learning mathematics. But in the UK, it can be much less.
  • The largest difference is in lesson observations. It is not uncommon for 100 teachers and educational experts to observe a teacher delivering a model lesson. Special lesson observation rooms accommodate visitors and there are also two-way mirrors.

Much of this is simply not going to be reproducible on a practical level. Of course, we can learn lessons from this and make some changes in UK schools to close the gap with China and other successful East Asian states. For instance:

  • We can lower teacher workload and focus on improving classroom discipline.
  • Teachers could spend more time on academic and subject matters in each lesson.
  • Teachers could spend less time on discipline matters and classroom management, and more time on the actual lesson.

But, what this simplistic view ignores is the wider culture in which Chinese children live and the influence that parents have on their child’s learning. It is ridiculous to suggest that teachers brought in from China will have any more knowledge or expertise than teachers from other countries or indeed our own.

Other factors at work

Like most Asians, the Chinese think of maths as a vital, high status skill that must be acquired, and that the route to success is hard work rather than innate talent. This attitude is instilled in the child from an early age (for example, 70 per cent of students in Shanghai attend afterschool maths classes, compared with 40 per cent in the UK).

There’s no surprise then that recent research suggests that much of the success of East Asian pupils in international tests is not down to the quality of the region’s schools, but to family background, personal characteristics and other out-of-school factors.

As a result, a study from the Institute of Education (IOE) concluded that it would actually be more helpful to examine the reasons why the children of immigrants from certain East Asian countries also thrive in Western countries with ‘average’ school systems. In England, for example, Chinese children have the highest GCSE scores of any ethnic group.

Parental expectations, pupils’ socio-economic backgrounds, culture, society and traditions are all big factors in Shanghai’s success. Also, due to their faith and trust in the curriculum and teaching methodology, every Chinese maths teacher believes that every single child, regardless of background, will succeed at mathematics, rather than thinking about which ones won’t be successful. The mentality in Shanghai is that whoever you are and wherever you come from, if you work hard, you can go to the best universities.

And as further evidence of this attitude, not everything about Chinese teaching is considered good – they are learning from us too from the exchange programme. For example, the forthcoming reforms to China’s university entrance exam (which will allow more flexibility in the subjects studied) are partly inspired by UK education.

And the way the UK system gives students flexibility and more room to be creative is also of interest to China. Remember, our system is responsible for churning out some of the world’s finest innovators. Pedagogy matters, and in many places, we have an innovative way of teaching, which is recognised by the world.

Perhaps we will find that discipline and creativity are difficult to reconcile within one school system. Even so – and despite cultural differences – we should not feel we cannot do anything to close the gap with China. Headteachers and teachers can play a really important role in determining school cultures – and that is where the roots of success lie.

School Leadership Today
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