No need to make a song and dance about math

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

The Bri­tish De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion an­nounced re­cently that half of the pri­mary schools in Eng­land will teach math­e­matic in the “Asian way”, for which the gov­ern­ment will pro­vide huge funds to pay for teach­ing ma­te­ri­als and teach­ers’ train­ing.

Be­cause of the poor per­for­mance of Bri­tish stu­dents in the Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent Assess­ment, co­or­di­nated by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, and Shang­hai stu­dents’ stel­lar show­ing in the assess­ment, many Bri­tons had been ask­ing the gov­ern­ment to adopt the “Shang­hai method” of teach­ing math. BBC has even made a doc­u­men­tary on how to in­tro­duce the Chi­nese math teach­ing method to Bri­tish schools.

These de­vel­op­ments have prompted some in China to as­sume the Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion model has got the global stamp of ex­cel­lence. But let us not jump to con­clu­sions.

Al­though the “Shang­hai method” will be used in Eng­land’s pri­mary schools and teach­ers will be trained to fol­low it, it doesn’t mean they have turned to the “Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion model” to achieve suc­cess.

Dif­fer­ent from China’s uni­fied ed­u­ca­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion sys­tem, schools in theUnited King­dom en­joy a lot of free­dom when it comes to manag­ing their af­fairs. True, the Bri­tish ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­i­ties will pro­vide teach­ing sup­port and train­ing ser­vice for schools, but the teach­ers will have the fi­nal say in the use of the “Shang­hai method”. This means teach­ers, two from each school, will in­deed par­tic­i­pate in the train­ing pro­grams but­may not fol­low the “China model” in its en­tirety.

Be­sides, the ed­u­ca­tion eval­u­a­tion sys­tem in theUKis also dif­fer­ent from China’s. In China, math is the core sub­ject in se­nior high school and the col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion, and there­fore China has a uni­fied teach­ing stan­dard for math and all stu­dents have to learn it. But in the

UK, not ev­ery­one is ex­pected to learn math be­cause ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion in that coun­try is fo­cused more on the char­ac­ter­is­tics and in­ter­ests of stu­dents. That­may also be the rea­son whyUKs­tu­dents’ over­all math score is not so high.

Given these facts, it is pos­si­ble that teach­ers in Eng­land’s pri­mary schools will change their teach­ing style to a cer­tain ex­tent, but stu­dents and their par­ents­may not sup­port the com­plete change of the method to teach math, let alone hav­ing a uni­fied stan­dard like China for the sub­ject.

Of course, an im­prove­ment in the math-teach­ing method­may in­crease stu­dents’ scores, which is what for­eign teach­ers praise Chi­nese stu­dents for. But a stu­dent can­not be­come a top tal­ent if he/ she is good only at math but lacks sound knowl­edge of other sub­jects and is de­void of the in­no­va­tion spirit. For ex­am­ple, Chi­nese mid­dle school stu­dents are good at win­ning top prizes in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions but few­grow up to be top sci­en­tists.

The prob­lem in China is that de­spite hav­ing strong opin­ions on ed­u­ca­tion, par­ents don’t have a say in the teach­ing method be­cause Chi­nese schools don’t rec­og­nize the ex­is­tence of par­ents’ or teach­ers-par­ents’ com­mit­tees. But in theUK, par­ents’ opin­ions mat­ter a lot when it comes to teach­ing meth­ods, which al­lows stu­dents to pay more at­ten­tion to the sub­jects they are in­ter­ested in rather than beat­ing their brains out to learn some­thing they don’t like.

China’s ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has a prob­lem: it uses the same stan­dard to eval­u­ate all stu­dents. This means more than the teach­ing method, the prob­lem is with the assess­ment sys­tem. There­fore, there is no need to be­lieve China’s ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is ex­cel­lent just be­cause schools in some coun­tries fol­low the Chi­nese teach­ing model.

The au­thor is deputy di­rec­tor of the 21st Cen­tury Ed­u­ca­tion Re­search In­sti­tute.

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