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Will Shanghai Method Yield Dividends in UK?

The Department for Education’s introduction of Shanghai mathematics in UK schools by means of a teacher exchange may have a positive effect on exam scores, according to one leading education figure:


David Reynolds, the professor of education at Southampton University suggests that UK pupils’ performances in the next Pisa international tests in 2018 could improve as a result of the UK utilizing teachers from Shanghai to impart what Schools Minister Nick Gibbs has suggested is their ‘meticulous’ approach to mathematics. This approach involves focusing on one particular topic, going through it in detail and not moving on to the next one until every pupil in the class has understood it. This is in contrast to the traditional, broader-based approach to the subject that characterizes the teaching of mathematics in the UK.

There is certainly a rationale behind the government’s initiative, namely that it ought to be beneficial to apply teaching methods that have seen Shanghai (China does not participate as a country but is instead represented by cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong) come top of the OECD’s international mathematics league table, with the UK trailing in 26th place.

The concept and teacher-led approach to mathematics, known as the ‘mastery method’ is currently being utilized via 70 Shanghai mathematics teachers working in English secondary schools.

Beyond improving pupils’ attainment, it is hoped that the Shanghai teachers’ methods will be absorbed and adopted by UK teachers, so that they may then apply them in their own lessons. Nick Gibbs characterizes the approach as one that UK teachers would be wise to seek to emulate: ‘Every step of a lesson is deliberate, purposeful and precise. If the Shanghai teacher exchange can show enough English teachers the merits of such practice, it will have been a resounding success’.

The initiative is not without its critics, or rather skeptics, however.

John Jerrim of the UCL Institute of Education, who has studied the similar Singaporean mastery method, adopted by primary and secondary schools in the Ark academy chain, suggests that teaching and methodology are not the sole or perhaps even most important factors in Shanghai pupils’ success, and should be looked at within a broader cultural context.

This comprises various facets, such as the fact that pupils in Shanghai do a greater amount of homework, receiving mathematics homework every day whereas UK pupils are given homework once or twice a week.

Added to this is the fact that weekend classes are a common occurrence in Shanghai, an extreme rarity in the UK, in addition to there being a greater utilization of private tuition in Shanghai.

This is obviously not being pursued as a panacea, and is certainly a genuine attempt at improving standards of pupil attainment by following a tried and tested protocol, but it remains to be seen whether such a protocol can be divorced from the cultural factors which have allowed it to flourish, such as increased levels of homework and private tuition, and still achieve the same or similar results.



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