On July 12th, 2016, England’s Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced that the so-called Shanghai Maths approach to teaching math will be adopted across England’s primary schools. It’s not surprising that the UK looks to China for inspiration; Shanghai has been topping the OECD’s international league table for maths achievement by a large margin.
Shanghai Maths is a very rigorous approach to math education, where children are practicing sums until they can show the teacher they have mastered the subject. Only then can they move on to the next. The goal is to reach a deep level of math understanding in each child, by way of discipline and repetition. For the UK, this means that education will move on from a very individual-based way of teaching, to an all-inclusive classroom-based teaching style (in Chinese classrooms, whole-class teaching made up 72% of lesson time).
Though Mr. Gibbs seems confident in the ability to copy-paste the Shanghai style, critics aren’t too sure. They point to the highly skilled math teachers in China, where primary math teachers are required to spend 5 years at univeristy studying math, and the lack of such respect for teachers at home.
Others are critical of the so-called sage on the stage model in which teachers impart knowledge by lecturing to an audience. They point out how important actual interaction between teacher and child is. In reality, however, math teachers in China are constantly in interaction with their pupils, by asking them questions, inviting them to write solutions on the blackboard, and quizzing their students on a regular basis.
Harry Mount writes: “One child answers a teacher’s question and the others repeat the answer. Then another child answers another question, the rest repeat it, and so on. The children give themselves an exact, rhythmic round of applause, before repeating the answers. They then write the answers in their books before each writing them on the board.”
Finally there are those who point out how differences in socio-economic background can attest for different results on international math tests. However, the results in Shanghai seem to be irrespective of background, with the poorest 30% of Shanghai children outperforming the richest 10% in the UK.
Shanghai Maths and EdTech
So has the UK government found an educational goldmine here? I believe they are definitely looking in the right direction, identifying some key components of what makes up ‘good math education.’ However, I’m not sure the answer lies with a such a large overhaul of the current system.
I would advocate that educational technology often embodies similar benefits as the Shanghai Maths system. I would even go as far to say technology in the classroom, when used correctly, can combine the best of both worlds: teaching for mastery, while keeping the focus on the individual.
As Charlie Stripp, director at the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, says: “Teaching for mastery focuses on deep conceptual learning, developing secure foundations that pupils can build on throughout their education. When a piece of mathematics has been ‘mastered’, it can be used as a foundation for new mathematical learning. Superficial learning in mathematics produces weak foundations, which can result in insecure learning and confusion.”
Interactive and adaptive online math platforms can allow the student to repeat exercises until mastered, scaffolding content and only allowing students to move on when the student can prove the subject is mastered. With social components, they allow students to learn from one another, look each other’s work, and stay in constant interaction with classmates and their teacher, even at home.
Teaching for mastery focuses on deep conceptual learning, developing secure foundations that pupils can build on throughout their education.
In China, math teachers might teach only two lessons a day, with the rest of the day reserved for personal study and discussion of maths. Online math platforms can free up time by checking and grading homework and exams, allowing teachers to focus more on improving the classroom learning experience and professional development.
Most importantly, technology can keep the individual element often praised in ‘Western’ education. Though I admire the goal to keep students on the same level, I believe every students eventually performs best when their individual needs are met. Adaptive online platforms can orchestrate the allocation of human and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner.
Of course the above does not mean education technology can take over the role of the teacher. But I do believe it can be used to complement classroom teaching. As Shanghai Maths acknowledges, at the core of excellent education are excellent teachers and an invigorating teacher-student interaction.
Let’s talk again soon,