British plan to emulate Shanghai pupils' maths excellence doesn't add up

Effort to import Shanghai educators overlooks China's own questions about its teaching system

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 2:56am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 5:40am

Educators in Shanghai have reason to cheer after Britain decided to import 60 local maths teachers to train their British counterparts.

Following a fact-finding trip by British education minister Elizabeth Truss to Shanghai, her government launched a programme under which 60 English-speaking math teachers from Shanghai would provide on-the-job training for British teachers in the autumn.

Britain is desperate to improve adult maths skills after an economic analysis found poor numeracy was costing the country £20 billion (HK$257 billion) a year.

Shanghai pupils' proficiency in maths impressed the British educators who hoped to learn from the local teachers.

Maths proficiency is more the result of sheer hard work than an efficient methodology

Shanghai's 15-year-old pupils were top performers in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test held by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Britain placed 26th in the test.

Worse, the Pisa test result showed that even children from poor families in Shanghai were one year more advanced in maths than middle-class British children of the same age.

While it is reasonable for Britain to enlist Shanghai teachers to help improve their teaching methods, it should also understand the Chinese education system before pinning high hopes on the Shanghai trainers.

Shanghai children's maths proficiency is more the result of sheer hard work than an efficient methodology.

China has a saying that a good command of mathematics, physics and chemistry can get you anywhere. Parents force children to study maths seriously before they have even reached school-going age.

But the gruelling endeavour to improve children's maths skills in Shanghai appears to be overdone - many preschool children are forced to spend a lot of time studying at the expense of a happily spent childhood.

Ironically, many well-educated Shanghai adults would be hard-pressed able to answer questions to entrance exams set by the city's key primary schools.

Nowadays, parents spend several hours after work helping their children finish their homework, and many complain about the difficulty of the exercises.

Parents who feel their children's grades are lagging hire tutors to help them catch up. Many parents also force their children to study maths courses designed for much older pupils as a way to stay ahead of their peers.

Not surprisingly, a growing number of adults and young people are having second thoughts about their education system when they realise that all the years of onerous study have had little impact on their career paths.

Many university students confess they have forgotten most of the knowledge they acquired at school, and that it is only simple mathematics, not complex algebra or calculus, that is most helpful in daily life.

The Pisa results also showed that Shanghai pupils were weaker in applying maths to solve practical problems.

Recently, education authorities in Shanghai have tried to ease the burden of primary and middle schools students who spend an inordinate amount of time with their heads buried in maths textbooks.

However, such efforts have yet to pay off as most pupils still delve into exercises, particularly maths, during their spare time.

Educators point out that Shanghai pupils, despite their high grades, lack innovative or critical thinking skills. But parents think it no waste of time for their children to study what amounts to impractical knowledge.

The reason is simple - pupils must chase high marks to get into good middle schools and universities since only graduates from top universities find it easy to get jobs.