Richard Perring (@learningmaths) was one of the first group of teachers to go to Shanghai and observe the ‘Shanghai method’. This blog is the first part of his reflections on that experience…
‘We are not better at mathematics, we just have more knowledge. There are no Nobel winners from China.’
Engineering student, Nottingham University Ningbo campus
As I write this, it’s a year to the day since I returned from Shanghai. What follows is a pulling together of notes which I made during the trip. In the year since our visit the momentum behind Shanghai hasn’t slowed. More teachers from the UK have visited and a number of Shanghai primary teachers have come to the UK. I understand from people observing their lessons that this has been very successful and, in some instances, inspirational.
My experience was of visiting secondary schools and, from conversations during the visit, I think that primary colleagues had a slightly different experience.
I’ll say it right at the beginning. In my opinion, Shanghai and China do not lead the world in mathematics because of the quality of the teaching that happens in the secondary classroom.
My understanding is that the best teachers in China are entered into district level competitions, and having watched a dozen videos of competition entries, these are almost entirely focussed on explaining teacher activity. The videos rarely show the class focussing entirely on the teacher’s input. That it seems from these videos, and from the many conversations that we had with teachers; that quality teaching is, in most instances, synonymous with high quality explanation.
I was keen to explore the way in which teachers planned these lessons. Collaborative planning is common (more on this later) but the idea of pedagogy seems to be almost non-existent. Content appears to be the only consideration. Questions about pedagogy inevitably seemed to lead to an explanation of ‘the best way to explain’ a concept. The work which teachers produced on their blackboards was a thing of beauty. Meticulous, multi-coloured, neat and precise. But to my mind, it was the teacher’s work rather than the work of the class.
So what do they plan?! The main, perhaps only, consideration seemed to be the progression through a topic. The ways in which question content builds from something relatively simple, to difficult. And the difficult questions were seductively difficult! It would be easy to see the product. 15 and 16 year olds tackling problems which could be from a further maths A-level, and think that we have to teach our students to do this. I say that we must not be seduced!
We must not confuse the outcome with the process. One of the key ideas that we can learn from the Chinese is not that we should teach our students ‘hard maths’ but that we should teach them the key ideas, key concepts and problem solving well, so that they are able to tackle ‘hard maths’ should they need to. This is not the same as teaching them complex techniques!
The assumption seems to be that, if you do something enough times then you will learn it. Daily maths lessons are followed by at least an hour of daily homework. The lessons involved the class watching, listening to and replicating the teacher’s work, and then practising the technique at home.
In an art department, we saw some amazing artworks displayed which were produced by the teacher over the course of six weeks of private work. Students then learned how to draw by carefully copying these complete works. Students developed the skills needed to draw, but I question whether they were learning to become artists. The same seemed to be true in maths. With the teachers solving a problem, explaining their steps as they went and the students replicating these steps. The problems that students solved were all of a similar nature to one another and to the exam. They were strongly mathematical in their presentation. Students were learning the toolkit of mathematics, but were they learning to become mathematicians?
We were all interested in an area which Shanghai teachers said they needed to develop, which was solving word problems. They aspire to the UK in this regard. I came away from the week feeling that most secondary teachers in the UK are ahead in almost all aspects of pedagogy and we should not be looking to China for this.
This is not to say that there is nothing that the UK can learn from Shanghai and China in maths education, and maybe in education more generally. There are huge lessons which we can learn and changes which we should consider. In my opinion though, these are structural rather than pedagogical. There are some aspects that are cultural and we cannot transplant these, but we can look for structures that facilitate this culture.