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Should all countries use the Shanghai maths


20 January 2017

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By Harry low
BBC World Service

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When the Chinese city of Shanghai t ook part In the

three-yearly Pisa test of lS-year-olds' academic ablllty In

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2009 and 2012 it topped t he table In maths, leaving

countries such as Germany the UK and the US and even

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The life of a teacher in a Shanghai primary school differs

quite a bit from that of teachers in most other countries.
For one thing each teacher specialises In a particular
subject If you teach maths, you teach only maths.

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These specialist teachers are given at least five years of

training targeted at specific age groups, during which they
gain a deep understanding both of their subject and of how children learn.

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After qualifying, primary school teachers will typically take just two lessons per day,
spending the rest of their time assisting students who require extra help and discussing

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teaching techniques with colleagues.

"If you compare that to an English practitioner In a primary school now, they might have
five days of training in their initial teacher training year, if they're doing the School Direct
route, for example," says Ben McMullen, head teacher of Ashburnham Community School,
"They might have some follow-up training during the first or second year of training - inset,
staff meetings etcetera but there's no comparison between the expertise of someone
who's had five years of training in a specific subject to someone who's had only a handful

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It's a similar story in secondary school, where teachers spend less time in the classroom
with pupils than they do on planning and refining lessons.

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There are other differences too. School days are longer - from 07:00 until 16:00 or 17:00.

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Class sizes are larger. And lessons are shorter - each is 35 minutes long, followed by 15
minutes of unstructured play.
There ls no streaming according to ability and every student must understand before the
teacher moves on. In the early years of school basic arithmetic is covered more slowly than
in the UK, says McMullen, who has travelled to Shanghai in one of the groups of British
teachers sent every year by the Department of Education to watch and learn.
"They looked at our curriculum and were horrified by how much we were trying to teach,"

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"They wouldn't teach fractions until year four or five. By that time, they assume that the
children were very fluent in multiplication and division.
"This ls essentially a 'teaching for mastery' approach: covering less and making smaller
incremental movements forward, ensuring the class move together as one and that you go
over stuff again and again until It's truly understood."

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It seems that other cities in mainland China may not be on quite the same level as
Shanghai. In the 2015 Pisa test Shanghai was bundled together with Beijing, Jiangsu and
Guangdong, and they jointly came fifth In maths, behind Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and
Hong Kong.

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It's also been suggested that Shanghai's results in previous years could have been skewed
by the failure to include about a quarter of puplls In the city. However Pisa insists Its
results demonstrate that the children of menial workers in Shanghai outperform the



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"The idea there is that effort brings rewards and so you will get this totally driven sort of

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idea but what you don't get - and what Chinese maths teachers are currently grappling
w ith - is this creative problem-solving that requires space and mulling and dwelling," she

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children of professionals in the West.

This is one of the key attractions of the system - it helps poor children realise their
potential, Increasing social mobility. But there are also drawbacks, according to Henrietta
Moore of the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London.

"We're actually much better at this in the UK and they're trying to develop that and learn
from us."
Another criticism of the system is that parents work children too hard. An estimated 80%
of students receive private lessons outside school.
"One of the downsides of parental interest in education Is they get competitive - they're
more competitive than the children so they want to have all these extra classes," says

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So is this a system other countries would do well to adopt?

"I would adopt the idea that anyone who teaches maths needs a deep understanding of
the conceptual building of maths and a deep understanding of how children learn that,"
says Anne Watson, emeritus professor of maths teaching at Oxford University. "I would
also want to take on board the idea of high expectations for everyone."
Online entrepreneur Martha lane-Fox is also a fan.
"Two things really appeal to me about this," she says. "The idea that everyone can be more
of a maths master than I think we believe here in the UK. I also really like the Incredible
attention to the micro-detail. I'm really interested in this notion of incrementalism and
moving things on in small chunks.
"The fundamentals of this policy are right and it's incredibly inspiring to think everybody
can become more freed up by maths."
Ben McMullen's primary school has already been borrowing some of Shanghai's ideas, he
There is no streaming, pupils are interacting more and there is a "different atmosphere" in
"The younger learners moving up the school have an incredibly robust sense of maths,
calculation and of concept," McMullen says.
And for teachers there is another great upside, he says - less marking.

Join the conversation find the BBC World Service on Facebook and Twitter.
Follow Harry Low on Twitter: @Harrylow49

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