Last year, thanks to our partnership with a leading Chinese education provider, I had the good fortune to visit a number of Chinese schools.
It was a timely visit: Shanghai Maths was oft-heard in the media in 2016, mainly due to their top-ranking position in the PISA tables. But what do they do differently? And is there anything we can learn from them as parents to help our children with their maths?
I’m going to categorise the differences into three main areas:
1. Pedagogical differences
There are major differences in the methods and practices of Chinese maths teachers compared to teachers in the West.
Children are taught as a whole class much more (which means less differentiation, but more support for children who aren’t keeping up).
I was surprised by the beautifully warm and positive relationships between children and their maths teachers (which I admit blew away any preconceptions I may have had).
‘Chalk and talk’ was employed much more as a teaching strategy. It’s possible because children’s classroom behaviour is better (see the point above).
The general case was explored frequently as a plenary to lessons. By this, I mean that at the end of a lesson, children would typically be encouraged to spot patterns in what they had learned, and model them using algebra.
2. Resourcing differences
Maths teachers in China typically have responsibility for two classes, who they will see for six lessons per week. They will see their class every day, but the timetable is arranged so that this is never in the first couple of lessons in the day – this means children can hand in their homework (which is set daily) when they arrive at school in the morning, and have it returned at the start of their maths lesson that day.
Teachers will collaboratively plan with each other on a timetabled, daily basis. So children have more time in the classroom, having lessons which are better planned, from better-trained teachers and receive daily homework which is always marked within a few hours of handing in. Those who fall behind receive extra help and would expect to receive help and support from home, too. The flip-side of this is that class-sizes are 35-40.
3. Cultural differences
Family attitudes to maths are different in China. Families support children in maths. It is a matter of pride. Here are some examples of what I mean:
My experience in the UK is that if children find maths difficult, they’ll be excused by their parents: once a child hears the words “Don’t worry, I was always bad at maths when I was at school” from their parents, they’ll have that excuse for the rest of their lives. I can’t imagine a Chinese family saying this.
Homework is always done. I think this is for three reasons: first, because it is set every evening, it forms part of a routine. Second, it is valued more by the parent and children are better supported in doing it. Third, it always reinforces what has been learned earlier that day so children remember what to do (homework set weekly always gets left to the last minute, by which time the children forget the task or the method they are practising).
More family members are invested in a child’s education. Although the one-child policy is now in China’s past, family units are still small. It’s a nice mathematical problem in it’s own right (try it!) but if you work a family tree back through where every family has had only one child since 1979, you’ll note that every grandparent only has one grandchild.
Every child in China has the sole attention, and bears the entire expectation, of not just two parents, but also four grandparents and perhaps even great-grandparents too – that’s a lot of people to help with homework, pay for extra tuition, and more.
It’s the cultural norm that children receive extra help if they’re behind in maths. Of course there are down-sides to this. I’d suggest that children have less time for play and to develop interests of their own. Children are also less creative as a result – and this is also borne out through the curriculum – a Design and Technology classroom I visited was largely focused on creating Airfix-style models, making children great at following instructions but lacking in design skills of their own.
China will always be strong at maths. Teaching is a more attractive job in China – although salaries are similar (when normalised with average national income), it commands greater respect as a profession and there are more highly-skilled maths graduates competing for those positions (it’s very rare to find a maths department in the UK where all the teachers are maths graduates or even maths-trained).
There are take-outs for me as a parent as well as a teacher. Probably the most significant factor in play here is the simple fact that children in China spend more time on their maths than in the UK. They have more lessons, are more engaged in those lessons, and they spend more time on homework.
For me and my own children, I think this is best addressed by making sure they feel confident in maths so that they don’t disengage in the classroom, and that they practise a little more at home on their DoodleMaths on a regular basis.
Much of the lessons the UK can learn are at beyond a family level; schools and governments are already sending teachers to Shanghai – we will see if there’s any impact on resourcing in our schools. But replicating the entire Chinese experience does come at a cost – it’s important that we take only the best practices that we are sure will work in the UK.