Learning Mathematics – “The Chinese way”

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Lilianjie Lu has left her five-year old daughter, her husband, and her job as a primary school teacher in Shanghai, yet she stands with a smiling face, in front of 21 seven and eight-year-olds in a London classroom, as she attempts to teach them all about fractions – the Chinese way. Although, her English is not as fluent as her knowledge of mathematics, but her enthusiasm and dedication to teach is visible on her face. Even the London classroom, where she is teaching currently, resembles a classroom from Shanghai – carpet taken up, desks in straight rows, and all eyes on Lu and her touchscreen.

Learning Mathematics

Lu, is one of the 30 Shanghai teachers currently working in primary schools across England, flown in by the Department for Education to help young children in Britain by raising the flagging standards. Lu is devoting her three-week stay at Fox primary school in Kensington to halves, thirds, numerators, and denominators to help children learn basics of fractions. The classrooms in Fox are also inhibited by a small group of observers – teachers from nearby schools – who watch and take notes. As per the latest Pisa Global Education League Tables, Shanghai is one of the top-performing jurisdictions; suggesting by the age of 15, children in Shanghai are up to three years ahead of their peers in maths. Almost all Shanghai pupils reach a similarly high standard and there are few gaps in achievement. Although the British government has invested £11m in a two-year programme to boost performance in maths, however, many in the education world are cynical of attempts to copy the Shanghai model.

The Teaching Process

The teaching process starts with Lu asking the children to read out the fractions on the screen; one child gives the answer – “a half” – then the rest of the children repeat. Another child identifies a third, everyone repeats, a quarter, and so on. At the end of this part of the lesson the children give themselves a clap –five precise claps in a set rhythm. Then the children read the fractions out all over again before moving on to the writing process. Even the writing process is not random and follows a strict order – first you draw the line, then you write the denominator, and finally the numerator, above the line. The children write them in their books followed by each children writing on the board and successful attempts are rewarded with five more tidy claps.

The class follows the same repetitive model – going over and over similar territory, stretching the children slightly further as the lesson progresses; making sure that everyone is keeping up. This is the “Shanghai mastery approach”, a methodical curriculum, aimed at developing and embedding a fluency, deep knowledge and understanding of underlying mathematical concepts; in contrast to the English model where teachers move on too quickly before children have properly understood the principle. There’s a lot of chanting and recitation but it’s a way of embedding that understanding.

The lessons given in Shanghai are much shorter – 35 minutes followed by 15 minutes unstructured play. The results, however, are phenomenal, with many teachers accepting that they witnessed better maths teaching in 35 minutes, in comparison to their 1 hour long sessions.

In Shanghai, there’s an expectation that every child will succeed, with every child of the same age being on the same page of the same textbook at the same time. Children have mastered their ‘jiujiu’ (times tables) back to front and inside out by the time they are eight. The classrooms in other countries, in contrast, are filled with colourful, interesting work stuck all over the walls.

While working in Shanghai, Lu teaches just two lessons a day; maths in the first half and the rest of the day is spent debriefing and discussing maths. An English primary teacher, in contrast, is a generalist, teaching all subjects, all of the time. Though, the teacher training models in China and England are similar.

Lu spent five years at university studying primary maths teaching; trainee teachers on programmes like School Direct will spend less than two weeks concentrating on maths. In spite of the success of the Shanghai model, critics question the compatibility with the diversity of children in other schools, which cater for children of many different nationalities and backgrounds, as opposed to the more homogeneous intake in Shanghai.