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2018-04-17 23:23:19  + video 

SHANGHAI — Seated in pairs, 8- and 9-year-old students open envelopes filled with paper shapes — triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons, and octagons — and start playing around with them. Some fit snugly together; some don’t. The lesson is not just how third-graders at Cao Guangbiao Primary School learn the basics of geometry — it’s also a successful Chinese export product.

China’s international influence has increased tremendously over the last few decades, but mostly through the “hard power” of its growing economic means. So-called soft power, influence through cultural products, has been a tougher sell: Chinese movies don’t do well at foreign box offices, and the country’s music isn’t heard around the world. But Shanghai’s math teaching methods have become an unlikely international hit.

The city placed first in two consecutive Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings in 2009 and 2012, with the organization saying that Shanghai’s students outpaced their peers in most other countries by three years. Though some people questioned the fairness of comparing China’s wealthiest city to entire countries, the rankings piqued international interest in what made Shanghai’s education practices so successful, especially when it came to math.

A teacher exchange program shares Shanghai’s approach to math education with British schools. By Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Nobody was more curious than the British government, which decided to spend millions on bringing Shanghai’s math approach to thousands of its own primary schools. In 2014, China and the U.K. started a math-focused exchange program that has so far involved more than 500 teachers, and Prime Minister Theresa May announced the partnership’s second extension during her visit to China earlier this year. According to Zhang Minxuan, former president of Shanghai Normal University who now leads the exchange project, education officials from Argentina, Brazil, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates have also been in contact about possible bilateral programs.

It is the first state-level exchange program in the field of elementary education between China and a developed country.

The partnership with the U.K. is a source of pride for Shanghai officials. “It is the first state-level exchange program in the field of elementary education between China and a developed country,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone. “It is of great significance to us and strenghtened our confidence.” The city’s mastery of math results from decades of tinkering with its education formula — doing away with the traditional Chinese approach in which teachers speak, and pupils are passive listeners. Now, in all subjects, the focus is on interaction.

In a first-grade math lesson at Shanghai Yuqiao Primary School, students are learning which numbers add up to 10, led by a boy who has been called on to act as the teacher. “Ten can be split into 2 and what,” he asks from the front of the class, and everyone answers, “8!” The children later repeat the exercise in pairs and then learn a rhyme to help them remember the day’s lesson: “5, 5, a pair of hands; together they make 10,” they sing.

Shanghai’s curriculum reform started in 1988, when the city compiled new textbooks. Another round of restructuring a decade later focused on increasing classroom engagement and fostering creativity. Jiao Fangming, who leads the math department at Yuqiao, became a teacher 22 years ago. “Math teaching then was more about passing on knowledge,” he tells Sixth Tone. “Now, we pay much more attention to linking our math lessons to real life.” When Jiao began his career, only the top students in a class would respond to questions. Teachers would tell the class directly whether an answer was correct, which discouraged pupils who lacked confidence from participating.

Gu Rongting teaches a math class at Huishi Primary School in Shanghai, March 23, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Gu Rongting teaches a math class at Huishi Primary School in Shanghai, March 23, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Changes to Shanghai’s teaching methods in 2014 sought to decrease competitive pressure. Teachers no longer give students a single score per subject, but instead break a pupil’s performance into several letter grades that value academic and social skills equally. Gu Rongting, a math teacher at Shanghai Huishi Primary School, tells Sixth Tone that the reforms have had a noticeable effect on her classes, as students have become more willing to share their answers and opinions. In a fourth-grade class, Gu introduces the concept of decimals and asks students to think of price tags from the supermarket. Students then discuss the differences between tens, ones, and numbers before and after the decimal point. “Sometimes, explanations from their peers work better than my language,” says Gu.

We emphasize that a class as a whole should learn and progress together.

Now, instead of telling students they are wrong or right, Chen Yiyi, a math teacher at Cao Guangbiao Primary School, has students debate whether their peers have given the correct answer. “I leave a lot of space for my students to discuss and explore on their own,” she says ahead of the geometry class involving paper shapes. Most of the class’s 32 students get the chance to share via projector how they worked in pairs to combine the various shapes. Their classmates are then invited to comment, which they do with enthusiasm. “Their combination is the same as ours!” quips one student.

Central to Shanghai’s approach is the idea that from first through ninth grade — China’s compulsory education period — all children should learn at the same pace. Chen was in one of the first groups of Shanghai math teachers sent to England on exchange in 2015. She says she was surprised to find that students at Birmingham schools were separated into different math classes by level. “That’s very different from Shanghai, where we emphasize that a class as a whole should learn and progress together,” Chen explains.

Yet friction has arisen between Shanghai’s education system, which now advocates collaborative learning and decreased pressure, and parents, many of whom want their child to outperform peers and eventually test into a good university. As a result, the education rat race starts early, with children sent off to enrichment classes even before they enter primary school. Shanghai’s teaching approach attempts to ensure that students who don’t attend extracurricular classes aren’t at a disadvantage.

Chen Yiyi teaches students geometry at Cao Guangbiao Primary School in Shanghai, March 22, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Chen Yiyi teaches students geometry at Cao Guangbiao Primary School in Shanghai, March 22, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Huang Weiyi, a math teacher at Shanghai Huangpu Luwan No. 1 Central Primary School, has 37 children in her class. She says that when they started first grade, their knowledge of math differed a great deal from student to student. But by the end of the first semester, the gap had all but been bridged. “We take small steps in teaching — the transition to a new knowledge point shouldn’t be a big jump from what they’ve already mastered,” Huang tells Sixth Tone, adding that she thinks young children will easily lose interest in math if the teacher allows them to lag behind.

We take small steps in teaching — the transition to a new knowledge point shouldn’t be a big jump from what they’ve already mastered.

Targets are set for each grade — mastering addition and subtraction in grade one, multiplication in grade two, and so on — but these don’t appear very aggressive compared with that of the U.K. Ben McMullen, principal of Ashburnham Community School in London, visited Shanghai for the exchange program and told the BBC that he was surprised to find schools don’t teach fractions until grade four. In the U.K., children learn this in year two, equivalent to first grade in Shanghai. “[Shanghai’s method] is essentially a ‘teaching for mastery’ approach: covering less and making smaller incremental movements forward, ensuring the class move together as one and that you go over stuff again and again until it’s truly understood,” he was quoted as saying by the BBC.

Chen of Cao Guangbiao Primary School says her peers in the U.K. found it surprising that she spent an entire class on the concept of one-fifth, approaching the topic from a variety of angles. “They said they would finish explaining this within five minutes,” Chen recalls.

More than three years after the teaching exchange began, math education in the U.K. has changed. Georgie Samuel, a math teacher from Goldsworth Primary School in Woking, a town near London, visited Shanghai last year to observe classes at Yuqiao. She tells Sixth Tone that she has incorporated many aspects of the Shanghai method into her daily lessons, such as the focus on children working in pairs or groups to digest what they have just learned. Her students have responded well to the changes, Samuel says: “I have noticed a real difference this year with their progression of reasoning skills particularly, both verbally and written. They enjoy the real-life context which the lesson is centered around and sharing with their peers how they have solved a problem.”

More importantly, Samuel notes, the British curriculum now advocates keeping the class together, rather than separating students by ability. “This is fundamental to the way you teach math in Shanghai,” says Samuel, “and a big shift in mindset for teachers in the U.K.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: First-graders learn addition and subtraction during math class at a primary school in Shanghai, Sept. 14, 2004. Zhang Dong for Sixth Tone)