Shanghai Surprise

Posted by Raj on Dec 5, 2015

The Shanghai Method of Teaching Mathematics

The Shaghai method is the answer to all mathematics educators’ prayers, or is it ?

On the Wednesday 25th November 2015 I had the opportunity of visiting Chailey School, East Sussex to observe Chinese teachers teaching a year 7 and a year 10 class. This government initiative is based on the methods used in Shanghai schools that currently occupy top spot on the PISA league table with the U.K. languishing in the 20’s region. There must be good reason or reasons why Shanghai is at the top of the table, and a way of improving the UK’s current standing.

With baited breath about 50 teachers sat around a makeshift class of 15 students in the main hall at the school. The Chinese teacher started the lesson at a fast pace and continued with it throughout the 40-minute lesson. Student whiteboard questions were used to monitor that the students’ understood at every stage. He took a couple of answers from students while the others were finishing theirs’ and then asked the class, which board had the correct answer. This seemed to ensure that there were no students ‘left behind’ and the wrong answer could be used to highlight misconceptions – part of the philosophy is that all the students should have mastery of a topic before moving on.

A poor homework is immediately followed up by a one-one intervention with the teacher, and the homework repeated until it is acceptable. The year 10 students were taught how to convert fractions to decimals and vice-versa. Student were reminded of family pairs:

5×2= 10



The lesson went extremely well, with some students shining. The progression from learning 7/10=0.7 to 10.125 =10 1/8 by the end of the 40-minute lesson was very impressive.

In the second lesson: teaching year 7 students about equations: eg. 8=4+2+x, the teacher began with different approach. With mellow music in the background and a fun looking Powerpoint, students were encouraged to participate and not worry about making mistakes – creating a positive ambience. But soon the teacher was going around the students in the class helping them individually, as not all of them were mastering the concepts.

So what can we learn from this experience. Is the Shanghai method the silver bullet the educators are looking for ? Clearly, the lessons we saw were well planned and there were ideas that can easily be introduced to the current methods used in UK Schools: family pairs; music for the younger students; teaching distributive, associative and commutative properties of numbers to be established before the age of 10. No doubt there are many other ‘tricks’ Shanghai has up its sleeve. However, from the discussion with Chinese teachers afterwards and experience of the UK teachers, we should see that we are not comparing like-for-like. For instance, there are no SEN students in classes and differentiation is not required; the motivation of the students is high, their parents may be paying for their education or at least remind them that if they do not succeed at school there is little for them to fall back on; classroom management does not seem to be a factor; the profession of teaching has a greater standing; time is available for teachers to mark homework; undertake one-to-one sessions with students; lessons are continually observed by colleagues looking to learn from each other and helping improve the observed teacher’s lesson in a positive non-judgemental atmosphere.

Having witnessed the best, as much as we would like to belong to the magic circle of brilliant mathematician nations and improve standards, as Ken Robinson says, “who wouldn’t want to improve standards,” the quest goes on. We should adopt good ideas from everywhere; learn from mistakes, work hard; promote the subject and profession to attract the best and conclude decisively: Shanghai does not have a monopoly on everything that is good.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.