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Richard Perring was one of the first group of teachers to go to Shanghai and observe the ‘Shanghai method’ This is the second part of his reflections on that experience. You can read part 1 of the blog here.

1. There are four threads that I have been struck by during the week.

CPD is taken seriously and is an integral part of the job. When asked to describe what teachers do in their non-contact time, which is considerable when compared to the UK, one teacher gave three responses that exemplify the answers given each time this question was asked.

a. Group discussion about teaching

b. Independent thinking

c. Designing multimedia [I assume that in this context, it means power points and similar teaching materials]

I would suggest that there are no maths teachers in the UK that would have this list. In fact admitting to having to think could be too much for many! In my experience there is an incorrect perception amongst much of the UK workforce that we must be seen to be actively working at all times. Thinking is not an activity valued in many UK schools, whilst in China it is expected.

CPD in Shanghai largely consists of research which is carried out in a form similar to lesson study. This is integral to the teacher’s day at all levels. Whether the teacher is a trainee at a university being filmed to discuss their practice with peers, or an experienced practitioner in a school. Observation, discussion and reflecting together appears to be an integral part of the culture of the school system. Teachers are seen as students in this context.

Contrasting this with the UK where CPD is too often seen as ’doing a course’ and, in the best instances, having half an hour at a department meeting to feedback on it. It leads to development being seen as bolt-on and in no way ‘continuous’. In Shanghai the C of CPD could easily represent ’constant’.

 

2. Students have daily mathematics lessons of 40 – 45 minutes.

Homework is set daily and is marked and returned on the same day. If there are issues, they are picked up on and dealt with quickly before the next lesson. Feedback is usually verbal, given only when there is a problem, and as it is so soon after the homework, it is relevant to the on-going work and forward looking.

Teachers have time to mark and to feedback on the same day.

Homework might be preparatory in that they are setting the scene for the next lesson, they may be practice of the techniques covered in the lesson, or a mix of the two.

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3. In the best practice we saw, teachers will teach students how to think.

When I talked to one student in a class and asked what she did when she got stuck, she replied that she would “try it another way”. When a teacher was asked a particular question about proportional reasoning, she replied “we teach them a way of thinking and a way of solving problems. They look at the key words and then think about what they know and how they can apply it to the problem.”

The intention appears to be that problem solving and big ideas are made apparent and shared with the students. Asking a question such as “which part of geometry do you like best?” commonly resulted in puzzled looks. The idea of breaking mathematics into discrete sections (other than broad areas such as Geometry or Algebra) didn’t seem to be considered, and I wonder if this supports students in finding connections within these topics and across them.

 

4. The vision is long term. It is worth developing teachers for a career.

The first year of teaching is spent with a mentor who will observe the NQT for a full day each week. The NQT will observe their mentor for a full day each week and will also spend half a day each week at university attending taught sessions. Teachers are an investment and are valued.

Similarly a teacher will have a class for the whole time that they are in the school. Relationships build and it is worth investing time with each student as they will not be ‘passed on’ next year.

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In the unlikely event that I’m put in charge of education across the UK, here are my thoughts for changes that my school might make. Are any of them useful to think about for you?

Possible actions and changes – in school

Frequency of lessons

Ideally students will have daily maths lessons. Is there an opportunity for lessons through the school day to be of different lengths? So lessons up to lunchtime are 45 minutes for Year 7. And during this time, they have their daily maths and English lessons? How can students be exposed to maths more frequently? (This is not necessarily the same as doing more maths!).

Is it possible for teachers to stay with the same class for a keystage? From year 7 to year 9? The shift in perspective, the strengthening of the relationship (both within the class and with the parents) may strengthen a teachers’ understanding of progress and areas of strength and difficulty for each student and across the class as a whole. Encouraging to focus on principles rather than techniques.

Marking and feedback

The apparent separation of marking and feedback might be worth exploring.

A structure that provides time for teachers to mark weekly homework as soon as it is handed in and to return the books that day, with the opportunity to talk with those students in need of feedback. It might be that, after handing in homework in a morning lesson, the teacher has time to mark and return the results via SIMs. Requesting that those students in need of feedback and support attend a lunchtime or afterschool session in preparation for the next lesson.

Professional Development

All teachers should be given an input into how and what to notice when observing lessons. Moving away from judgement in all but performance management observations. There needs to be two different types of feedback/observation form: one for performance management observations and one for developmental work. The possibility of establishing small groups to focus on particular areas of pedagogy within departments should be looked at, and these groups should be supported with time. Would each teacher, being responsible for a blog that details their professional learning, support this and help with accountability?

Would this have to be done at all levels, SLT, NQT and TA for it to be seen as non-judgemental?!

Finally…

I can’t help thinking of what would happen if the two teaching forces were to trade places. UK secondary maths teachers moving to Shanghai and Shanghai teachers moving to the UK. My conjecture is that the results in Shanghai would increase, although many UK teachers would struggle with the high level of mathematics required. While results in the UK would fall.

If we were to be able to combine the problem solving pedagogy that is relatively common within the UK with the structures found in Shanghai then we would have an unbeatable maths education system. Not unbeatable in terms of exam results… (There will always be a culture somewhere that will get there with sheer hard work and, as the engineering student quoted at the beginning recognises, mathematics is a subject where a certain level can be reached in this way) …but in terms of producing rounded, creative, problem solving mathematicians with a solid conceptual understanding underpinning their attainment.