What is the secret to Shanghai’s teaching prowess?

Professionalism and varied approach to job give educators in China’s biggest city edge, but there is also room to place fewer demands on the students

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 July, 2016, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 3:57pm

Does Shanghai have a secret to teaching its primary and middle school students? Many developed countries are wondering that since the city sent 15-year-old students to OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests that assess ability in reading, mathematics and science for the first time in 2009 and achieved the highest scores among more than 70 OECD member countries and partner economies. Three years later when the city next attended the test, it topped the world charts again, prompting education officials in the United Kingdom to invite Shanghai teachers into their schools on short exchanges. ZHANG MINXUAN, a comparative education expert with a PhD from the University of Hong Kong who is responsible for Shanghai PISA project, told ALICE YAN how Shanghai teachers focus on teamwork and learning from their peers.

What’s the background of Shanghai math teachers teaching in the UK?

Shanghai students’ PISA exam results have raised eyebrows in many Western countries and China has been encouraging cultural exchanges with other countries. So far 125 maths teachers have been sent on month-long exchanges at primary schools in England while 147 British teachers have visited Shanghai in the past two years.

Why did Shanghai participate in the PISA test in 2009?

We wanted to see how our methods stood up to international standards. We also regarded it as a test to find out our shortcomings and help raise our standards at home. But our high PISA exam results piqued Westerners’ curiosity in Shanghai’s maths education, leading to articles and books being published in recent years. US author and columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an article in The New York Times in 2013 entitled The Shanghai Secret, based on his visit to an average elementary school in Shanghai.

In teaching methods, China and Britain have lessons for each other

Why did Shanghai students achieve high scores in the PISA test, and how did their schooling in Shanghai help?

I think there are six “secrets” to China’s math teaching. First is “hope” and “expectation”. All teachers believe that every student can grasp maths in elementary and middle schools. Parents also have high expectations on their children, so there is a synergy in pushing students to learn it well. It’s a different situation in the UK, where many teachers followed the theory of teaching students according to their aptitude. They will give up on some students and not try help them improve their maths if they think the students lack interest or talent in the subject. Second, our math teachers all majored in maths at university. UK elementary teachers cover various subjects so they don’t have as much professionalism or experience in teaching math as our teachers. Third, teachers not just in Shanghai but in other places across China spend a lot of time planning lessons and sharing their experiences among their peers to deepen their teaching skills. Lesson demonstrations are often delivered so that teachers can sit in the classroom and learn from their counterparts. The fourth feature is the math teaching method and traditional games that are a legacy of ancient China. For example, the Chinese multiplication table is so catchy and easy to remember that most young Chinese students can recite it easily, which helps them do multiplication calculations quickly. Besides these advantages, UK teachers say our teachers focus on “small steps in teaching” and that we have more variations in teaching methods than they do. They say our teaching is more flexible and does not only contain rote learning. Finally, local and central education authorities all make middle- and long-term plans for our schools, but their UK counterparts don’t, perhaps due to their changes in government.

PISA tests are controversial among some Western education experts. They thought this test is not so authoritative and thus Shanghai students are not as exceptional as results show. What do you think?

We shouldn’t feel complacent. We should instead be aware that Shanghai, or the mainland, has “weak points” in education. PISA tests measure reading, maths and science, but they are not all about basic education. One main goal in basic education is to prepare people to be responsible citizens, and PISA does not consider this area. It is difficult to test this since people had different ideologies and opinions on what makes a citizen “responsible”. PISA also cannot measure a student’s talent. We should also bear in mind that our higher education is not as competitive as that in North America and Europe.

British plan to emulate Shanghai pupils' maths excellence doesn't add up
Shanghai primary and middle students often complain they are under such high pressure and workload that they can barely finish their homework until late in the evening every day. Is this the reality?

We should reduce the pressure of academic studies on students and let them have more time for extracurricular activities or to relax. Of course I know that change is hard and painful and it’s a social issue involving schools, parents and the government. We have a big chunk of students achieving high scores in tests, but I don’t think our society needs so many high-scoring students. Pupils spend more time studying to lift their scores from 90 to 100 than to progress from 60 to 90. I think the time they spend making those few extra top marks isn’t necessary. They could better use that time to follow their interests – or just sleep! Students with hobbies are happier and more creative than those whose time is crammed with academic studies. I hope our schools and parents realise this, adjust their expectations and adjust their children’s schedules accordingly. It’s essential to shift our focus because our present world requires not only knowledge, but how to use that knowledge in a creative ways.

Will Shanghai send another batch of math teachers to England this year?

Quite possibly so. It will happen after the two countries sign another agreement on teacher exchanges. It’s my understanding that the UK government is passionate about this project that has been funded by the UK authorities over the last two years.