Britain Turns to Chinese Textbooks to Raise Math Scores

In Education On
- Updated

BEIJING — 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.

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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.

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