• Tue
  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 7:55am
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 2:56am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 5:40am

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

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.



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This article is now closed to comments

But Britain is heading backwards.
Britain is desperate because its education produces poor numeracy which is said costing the country £20 billion (HK$257 billion) a year. How it arrived such a conclusion is questionable.
But how much is it costing China for educating its children who become lack in innovative or thinking critical skill? Have Britain considered that? Why just look at the PISA test result? Why not look at productivity per capita or how may leaders in all disciplines? Let me tell you, despite a small country, Britain is far ahead of many countries which are many times bigger.
You must be kidding to have the British kids to emulate the Shanghai’s – just to get a higher score in PISA tests?
The comment "lack innovative or critical thinking skills" is repeated almost every time someone is ciritical of the education system in Shanghai, and China, generally. It is an old and out of date perspective. As with every educational system in the west, China's system continues, and will continue, to evolve. In my experience working with Chinese graduates for more than 7 years, they are smart, hardworking, talented, and quite capable of innovative and critical thinking. The primary differences with the UK and other western countries is that in China, 1- the "cool kids" are the smart ones and to be emulated and not the "athletes" admired so much elsewhere and 2- they are very hardworking with tremendous support from parents and teachers.
Don't understand your last sentence but agree with your second post in reply.
I wonder what system the author Daniel Ren would want his children to grow up in - Western or Chinese? If the Chinese system is just cramming & retards innovation, then the speed at which the Chinese economy was able to grow from near bottom to No. 2 (& soon No. 1) in a mere fraction of the time it took the West to do the same - is not innovative, then you got me confused.
Daniel Ren must be very poor in mathematics !
To pgb,
Confucianism still controls the education – children are taught to be circumspective of others over anything else. Individualism is suppressed. Furthermore, the very keen competition for one’s future survival is well understood by parents that extra effort must insist upon their kid. A parent explained to me China just has too many people fighting for the same job. She has her kid attending tutorial classes on Saturday and Sunday.
Early, Xi Jinping instructed schools not to assign too much homework. But, tradition and competition in the minds of the parents and educators, I am afraid the students would have much choice.
Running away abroad is popular and seemingly the only alternative. This is so affirming what education critique on China’s education.
'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.'
There is no reason why examinations CAN'T be changed to be more practical.
Status quo and profit have kept testing and examination unchanged. Only government with a resolution could cut out otherwise the nonsense what all children need to learn – algebra?, calculus?, trigonometry?, and Applied Maths before attending university.


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