Posted by Senay on Dec 9, 2015

“The government has invested £11m in a two-year programme to boost England’s performance in maths.” This is what I read in the papers about the UK government’s intention to implement Chinese methods of teaching maths. This really got my attention…

All I knew about Chinese methods initially consisted of the BBC’s recent Chinese schools documentary. This was a fascinating insight into a completely different way of teaching. We were also given a great opportunity to observe a live lesson alongside other professionals.

The seminar (workshop) started with a presentation about Shanghai methods of teaching. They explained what the mentality behind these methods is. Firstly, the motto: “Heaven, Earth, Family, King, and Teacher”.  They highlighted the inclusion of “teacher” in this motto. Is it the reason they are ranked top in the PISA 2012 ratings? Are they really successful just because they respect their elders and teachers? These questions increased my curiosity to find out what they really do differently.

The two presenters, who were the English counterparts of Chinese teachers, went to China and stayed there to observe Chinese lessons. They introduced two Chinese teachers and gave a little bit of information about them individually. These two Chinese teachers demonstrated two lessons which were thirty five minutes each. The subjects were fractions and solving equations. They then brought in twelve students from year seven and eight. They both started the lesson by greeting the students and praising them with expressions such as: “you are the best” and “you are stars”, which I really like because of the way it boosts the students’ confidence before the actual lesson starts. I asked at the end of the seminar whether this is the way they always start their lessons and the answer was a clear yes.

I noticed that they both structured their lesson and broke the topics into sections, such as changing decimals to fractions or asking questions like can you write this equation differently etc. They both seemed very relaxed and not rushed and asked questions frequently to monitor if the students were following or struggling. This really helped the students to understand the concept and engage with the lesson. I also noticed the time they allowed students to practise their questions, paying attention to if anyone had been left behind. Then they made sure these students kept up with the rest of the class. In the UK we tend to pass over topics more quickly and leave room for misunderstandings and misconception, which they seem to avoid.

While I was watching and enjoying their lessons I noticed many differences with UK teaching methods. For example, the first Chinese teacher finished his fraction lesson and did not mention recurring or long division. At the second lesson when they learned about solving equations, the students were not shown the balancing method (which I thought was important) but later on I found out that they do not rush their students to learn these parts. These parts come later on, because they built the foundation level very solidly first. As the students’ progress and get to the higher level the students learn these parts automatically.

I noticed that their lessons were not dynamic. The students all sit at their tables very quietly and with a high levels of concentration. I still think that the example lessons were not presented in a natural classroom environment. The twelve pupils were carefully selected (even though we were told that there were bottom set and top set students). They did not use multilink, bottles (for fractions), graphs or any visual representation, even though the students engaged and understood the concept. This I found extremely interesting. These children were UK students and unaware of the motto “Heaven, Earth, Family, King, and Teacher.” This leads me to conclude that the techniques they employed in the classroom were just as important as the motto (and the culture in which the motto developed).

After the seminar I had a chance to talk to the Chinese teachers and my tutor E. M. brought up a question and asked how many lessons they teach on a daily basis. The Chinese teacher explained that the usual number was two. We thought he had not understood the question so we asked again and got the same answer. He was asked what they do with the rest of the day. He said that the rest of the day was spent reviewing lessons, preparing homework, marking homework, and preparing the next lesson. We explained that in the UK we teach at least four or five lessons a day and therefore cannot give students homework, because teachers do not have enough time.

We left the room with confused faces and I had a good understanding of why the Chinese teachers were so calm.

It was an excellent experience and opportunity to be able to be present at this seminar. I started looking at their techniques and tried to find out how I could apply them to my future lessons.

In conclusion, it is clear to see that we a have a lot to learn from the Shanghai teachers in relation to the teaching methods they employ. We certainly exist and work within very different cultures.

There are techniques we can learn from the Shanghai teachers but we should not forget our society. In our schools we cater for students of many different nationalities and backgrounds and this is a factor in explaining the difficulties faced by UK teachers.


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