A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Aug 21, 2017

Britain Turns To Chinese Text Books To Improve Its Math Scores

The pupil becomes the master. JL

Amy Qin reports in the New York Times:

Under a $54 million initiative funded by the government, more than half the primary schools in England will adopt a teaching approach to math that is used in Shanghai and Singapore. The approach is believed to have propelled students in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore to the top rankings. In 2009 and 2012, Shanghai students outscored their counterparts. Singapore ranked first in 2015. The Chinese textbooks were “significantly more demanding” than the current curriculum in England.
Educators around the world were stunned when students in Shanghai came first in their international standardized testing debut, in 2010, besting their counterparts in dozens of countries in what some called a Sputnik-like moment.
Now, some British schools will try to replicate that success by using translated textbooks that are otherwise all but identical to those in public elementary schools around Shanghai.
Starting in January, teachers in England will have the option of using “Real Shanghai Mathematics,” a series of 36 textbooks translated directly from Chinese into English. The only difference? The renminbi symbols will be replaced by British pound signs.
“All this time, Asians have been learning from the Western education system,” said Yong Zhao, a professor of education at University of Kansas. “Suddenly, it’s the reverse.”
Western classrooms have adopted mathematics teaching techniques from Asia before. In the past, a small number of schools in the West experimented with a Singapore-style approach. It is similar to the method used in Shanghai, which is seen as having the best math teachers in China.But experts say England is the first country to forge ahead with a bold government-backed plan to remake some classrooms in the image of the East. Under a $54 million initiative funded by the government, more than half the primary schools in England will adopt a teaching approach to math that is used in top-performing places like Shanghai and Singapore.
“I am confident that the steps we are taking now will ensure young people are properly prepared for further study and the 21st-century workplace, and that the too often heard phrase ‘can’t do maths’ is consigned to the past,” said Nick Gibb, the British schools minister who oversees primary education, when he announced the initiative last year.
The teaching method, known as the “mastery” approach, is based on the idea that all students can succeed in learning mathematics when given proper instruction. Whereas teachers in the West might describe a concept and then assign problems for students to solve individually, the mastery method is more interactive. Teachers frequently pose questions to students who are then expected to precisely explain both solutions and underlying principles in front of their classmates.
Students learn fewer concepts under this approach, which allows them to go into those concepts in greater depth. For fractions, for example, teachers might ask students to apply the underlying principle “part of a whole” in different contexts, making use of pictorial representations and other visual techniques to explore the abstract idea. Ideally, only when the entire class has demonstrated understanding or “mastery” of one concept does the teacher move to the next.
Colin Hughes, the managing director of Collins Learning, the education division of HarperCollins, which is publishing the texts, said that the Chinese textbooks were “significantly more demanding” than the current curriculum in England.
The mastery approach is believed to have propelled students in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore to the top of the rankings for the Program for International Student Assessment, a respected exam known as PISA, which tests about half a million 15-year-olds in over 60 countries every three years.
In 2009 and again in 2012, Shanghai students outscored their counterparts in reading, science and math. Singapore ranked first in 2015. Experts say that besides the mastery approach, other factors explain that success, such as heavy parental involvement and a cultural emphasis on education.
Many Western countries, by contrast, have lagged, making little progress in the rankings over the years. The United States, for example, generally hovers at average or below average in overall results, and in 2015, Britain was 27th for math, one place worse than three years earlier.
Some schools in Britain have already begun experimenting with mathematics textbooks based on teaching materials from Singapore. Another series adapted from China to fit British curriculum requirements is used in around 400 primary schools in England, according to Ni Ming, an editor at East China Normal University Press, the Chinese publisher of those books.
Britain’s shift to the East is a turnaround for a country that has some of the world’s elite universities.
It is a boon for China, which has made no secret of its wish to project soft power to accompany its growing economic might. But those efforts have met with mixed results so far. An ambitious endeavor to establish hundreds of Confucius Institutes on university campuses around the world, for example, has drawn widespread criticism for what some say are internal policies running counter to general principles of academic freedom.
The country’s K-12 education system, by contrast, is something of a natural cultural resource, having been built around the all-important gaokao, or national college examination, a single competitive test that determines where most Chinese go to university.
Besides Britain, a number of other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, and Malaysia, have expressed interest in learning from the so-called Chinese mastery model. Mr. Ni, the Chinese publisher, said that the company was in talks with education representatives in several other countries, like the United States, about adapting its workbooks.
The movement to learn from China comes even as parents and educators in the country increase calls to overhaul the education system to ease the intense pressure on students and encourage individuality.
“Just because England is importing our teaching materials doesn’t mean there aren’t any problems with our education system and that it doesn’t need reform,” Xiong Bingqi, vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, wrote recently in the Guangming Newspaper.
In some parts of China, officials have already begun experimenting with gaokao reforms and with teaching techniques that reward critical thinking. Dissatisfied with the education system at home, huge numbers of parents continue to send their children to study in countries like England and the United States.
“Right now, the national buzzword is creativity,” said Jiang Xueqin, a researcher at Harvard who advises Chinese schools on how to incorporate more creativity into their curriculum. “China sees it as a source of economic power, a hurdle to be jumped over to challenge American hegemony.”
Some experts question whether merely adopting Chinese textbooks will have a real impact on math standards. Textbooks, Mr. Hughes acknowledged, are not a silver bullet for education problems in Britain.
But even if the effort is well intentioned, some critics say the mastery system is too rooted in the cultural context of Asia to be applicable in the West.
Mr. Ni said that some of those differences became evident in translating Chinese workbooks into English. One exercise asks first graders to pair objects, like a shirt and shorts, for example, or a flower and a vase.
But at least one pair had to be changed, he said. The bird and cage in the original became a bird and a tree in the English edition — a not-so-subtle metaphor, perhaps, for the different approaches to teaching.
“To Chinese, the bird is just a toy,” Mr. Ni said. “But in England, the bird has to be free in the tree.”

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