How many air miles does it take to find out how Shanghai teaches maths?

Janet Downs's picture
The answer should be None. But schools minister Elizabeth Truss and her delegation are off to Shanghai to discover why Shanghai pupils perform so well in maths. But they could have done that without clocking up air miles.

The National College for School Leadership investigated Maths and Science teaching in Shanghai in 2013. And a report on Shanghai’s education system by the US National Center on Education and the Economy was summarised here.

A Department for Education (DfE) press release announcing Truss’s jaunt said the World Economic Forum placed maths and science education at 50th place out of 148 countries. Shock horror!

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2013 (p 463) confirms the DfE statement: UK was 50/148 for the quality of maths and science education as assessed by respondents to a survey. UK scored 4.4. The same score was given to Norway, USA, Macedonia and, wait for it, China. These countries all scored above the mean (4). Just giving rankings is deceptive unless accompanied by a score.

To recap: according to the World Economic Forum, the UK ranks alongside China for the quality of its maths and science education.

England’s performance in maths has “stagnated” according to TIMSS 2011, said the DfE. But it failed to mention this consistent performance put English 10 year-olds in the global top ten where they were in 2007. The performance of 14 year-olds fell to the TIMSS average but this was on a par with Finland, top performer in PISA tests.

To recap: according to TIMSS 2011, English 10 year-olds are in the top ten for maths performance and English 14 year-olds occupy the same position as Finland.

Still plugging the negative, the DfE said 30% of employers were dissatisfied with school leavers’ numeracy. That means 70% were satisfied. And the proportion of employers providing remedial lessons in numeracy fell from 18% in 2012 to 14% in 2013.

The DfE was right, however, about poor performance of English and Northern Irish 16-24 year-olds in the OECD’s Adult Skills Survey 2013. But the DfE ignored warnings by the OECD and the NFER that readers should exercise caution when using the survey’s findings because of possible bias associated with a poor response rate. But caution can be thrown to the wind when results can be used to underpin Government reforms.

It appears, however, someone at the DfE has read the National College’s report. The DfE claims it’s already implemented some of its suggested changes. These “include creating additional teacher development time…” But Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to scrap teachers’ conditions of service rules which regulate non-contact time. Perhaps he’s had a change of heart and will follow Shanghai’s lead. The National College wrote:

“Class contact time is dramatically lower, at between 25%-30%, than in English schools where 80%-90% is the norm.” The trade-off is larger class sizes.

This low class contact time allows teachers to mark work immediately, give instant feedback, plan the next lesson, and evaluate and improve their performance.

To recap: class contact time for Shanghai teachers is no more than 30%.

The DfE lists the extra demands it has introduced in its “rigorous new curriculum”. But this introduces abstract concepts too soon. Shanghai teachers stress repetition and practise to encourage deep learning. LSN contributor Rebecca Hanson has called for the suspension of the 2014 maths curriculum.

One overlooked reason why Chinese children perform better in maths than Western children is suggested by Eastaway and Askew. The Chinese numerical system is more logical. It doesn’t use names like thirteen or thirty-six but “one-ten three” and “three-ten six”. This makes adding 16+13 much easier: one-ten six + one-ten three = two-ten nine. Children who learn Chinese counting have greater understanding of how numbers work which gives them a head start.
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Chris Manners's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 17:54

Well said.

I think the ex-Soviet places have fairly "traditional" systems, with some new progressive elements. Surely more relevant than Shanghai?

Brian's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 18:19

Sorry to bang on about the same issue but are then any takers for a bet that Tristram Hunt will hammer Gove and Truss about these matters in the House?

Brian's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 18:24

Sorry Janet I should have tempered my petulant post by congratulating you on a typically excellent expose of the headlines. Apologies.

Jane Eades's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 18:54

Over the years I have wondered whether there is any research looking at the different effects of a symbolic written language, rather than a phonetic written language. I would expect that the former might positively effect the learning of Maths and would be reflected in results from China and Japan, etc. Does anyone know of any such research?

Brian's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 19:19

Try 'Writing Chinese and Mathematics Achievement' at

It's interesting.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 07:38

Brian - thanks. What annoyed me (apart from the DfE's usual negative take padded out by self-congratulatory quotes from ministers) was the way the BBC just churned the DfE figures without questioning them. I'd never heard of the World Economic Forum's data on education - it's not been cited before.

However, it contains some interesting stuff (although it should be remembered that much of the data was from a survey of executives - this may or may not be reliable). I shall be posting something in the future.

A Cooper's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 15:12

Sorry, Janet, I'm hijacking postings again. Have you seen this?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 18:18

A Cooper - Your link is to a local BBC site. This is a quote from it.

"A college has wrongly claimed nearly £1m for students it could not account for, a government report has found.

Barnfield Federation, which runs Barnfield College in Luton, Bedfordshire, is being investigated over claims of financial mismanagement.

A Skills Funding Agency (SFA) report, seen by the BBC, says significant failures in the management structure led to improper use of college funds.

Barnfield Federation said it would comment once the report was published.

The federation, which also runs four academies and a free school, is currently the subject of three inquiries, with the Department for Education and the Further Education Commissioner also investigating."

It might on the wrong thread but it adds to a growing evidence base.

PiqueABoo's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 20:32

Relative to Chinese, Welsh speakers apparently have it worse than English. The language issue is discussed in Stanislas Dehaene's 20TH century book The Number Sense. This is the relevant chapter in Google Books:

Meanwhile I have a problem with this international test ranking debate because I don't really see how quoting TIMSS is a good answer to Gove et al quoting PISA. What's really missing is someone with mathematics education oomph to stop circling around PISA and TIMSS, go in for the kill and explain why the performances in these are different based on scrutiny of the questions.

I'm only running on a little knowledge and instinct, but at a glance TIMSS samples looks very much like school-curriculum stuff, whereas PISA samples are their (questionable) version of 'functional maths'... or something. They're not measuring the same 'maths'.

So our children are better at the type of maths they focus on at school. Assuming those PISA samples are genuinely representative I think we could train children to be much better at PISA maths by having them practise wordier multi-step problems, those little stories from which you have to extract a few raw and not especially difficult 'sums'. So what kind of maths do we genuinely want? PISA? TIMMS? Something else?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 21:58

PiqueABoo - Once again we come to the issues of knowledge, skills and cognitive development.

In answer to your question we certainly want the kind of maths that enables us to solve both practical and theoretical problems of increasing levels of difficulty. But we also want the kind of maths that stimulates curiosity and engages and develops the intellect.

Regarding the difference between PISA and TIMMS with respect to science, see my post.

Your link makes the common assumption that mental processing speed is the primary factor in being good at maths, but Daniel Kahneman, the advocate of 'slow thinking', would dispute that. Mistakes are often made by jumping to conclusions. Jumping to a false conclusion quicker does not help.

Ponderous, analytical resort to reason may take different people different amounts of time to get to the solution but is that really so important? It is the deployment of reason (Kahneman's System 2 thinking) that is essential rather than the much quicker System 1 (instinctive) response that fires instinctively and needs to be consciously supressed.

I explore this in my post

I think this is absolutely fascinating and of enormous importance to theories of learning, that deeply unfashionable study that remains at the heart of effective pedagogy.

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 00:19

Janet, I have read the linked reports and others including this one from Center on International Education Benchmarking:

It is my view that you got it right, why does the delegation need to embark at all? Not only does it waste valuable resources that could be put to better use but it is clear Elizabeth Truss will not improve her standing as a balanced commentator on education reform upon her return because she will have to ignore the evidence and work at the spin.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 07:57

PiqueABoo - you're right, TIMSS and PISA test different things. However, the Government sets great store by international test rankings (look at how the DfE tried to spin the positive TIMSS data by saying England had "stagnated"). So it's only right that the data used by the Government should be scrutinised and any misrepresentation highlighted.

You're also right about the PISA maths - it attempts to check application of maths to problems. A difficulty arises if the pupil has poor literary skills - the "maths" test can appear to be more a test of literacy than maths (note - I'm not an expert - this is my opinion and could well be wrong).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 08:05

Truss and her predecessor Nick Gibb are profoundly ignorant about how children learn.

Truss and Gibb think introducing children to algorthms and abstract maths early will improve maths. They won't because many children will lack the bed rock of understanding essential for manipulating numbers accurately. Truss/Gibb both have an antipathy to methods such as chunking which are actually very useful steps towards understanding. But Gibb, writing this week, attacks chunking and claims resistance to its abolition in favour of algorithms is because of the "educational establishment".

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 08:19

John - thanks for the link. It confirms many of the findings in the National College report. There was no need for Truss and her entourage to visit Shanghai. As you said, she's likely to use her visit to say she's seen evidence that the approach she favours is being used. It's likely to be spun, as you say. For example, the necessary repetition and practice will be revamped as "rote learning" (the Telegraph did this on 18 Feb).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 14:26

I thought it wouldn't be long before the arty-farty left weighed in with a denial of the importance of maths. See this Guardian article by Simon Jenkins, entitled, "For Britain's pupils, maths is even more pointless than Latin"

This more or less sums up his argument.

"Of course children need to be taught the rudiments of number, proportion and probability, as they do to read and write. But there are few occupations that need maths at the level I studied, and they can learn it as a language skill."

Maths is not merely a utilitarian skill. It is the mode of discourse of science and reason. If Simon Jenkins is right that people don't need maths understanding beyond a rudimentary level, then this implies that they don't need any science understanding either.

Science is not just what delivered the modern world from poverty and ignorance, it gives to individuals the power to distinguish truth from falsehood, which is especially important given that jumping to conclusions based on intuition and belief so frequently leads to false notions that can have disastrous consequences, certainly for individuals, but also society as a whole and ultimately for the safeguarding of the planet. See my post.

Even the everyday world is difficult to understand without an appreciation of both the scientific method and the fundamentals of physics. It is significant that the part of the Nuffield Science project of the 1970s that was aimed at below GCE grade C pupils, Nuffield Secondary Science, was stuffed with physics and especially Newtons Laws of Motion. This requires the concepts of speed and acceleration to be understood.

This can't be done without maths.

At the most utilitarian level, how important is it to comprehend the basis on which you enter into a contract with energy supply companies? This is not possible unless you understand the difference between energy and power and the units they are measured in. This has nothing to do with 'skills' at all. Children first have to be taught developmentally to understand the concepts of force, energy work and power.

This can't be done without maths.

The more that individuals understand maths and science, the clearer and more meaningfully, they see the world around them.

This is what Plato wrote in 'The Republic'.

"Those who have a natural talent for mathematics are generally quick at every other kind of knowledge; and even the dull, if they have had mathematical training although they derive no other advantage from it, always become much quicker than they would otherwise have been."

Plato was right. Simon Jenkins is wrong - big time.

PiqueABoo's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 14:55

Courtesy of life with a Y6 daughter I don't believe you are wrong. She's a high performer with solid/secure L6 maths, but also has a track record of being very good at reading/comprehension tests through KS2. The new-in-L6 maths topics do require more analytical reasoning and the L6 SATs maths questions are definitely 'wordier' compared to the standard ones. I've heard enough talking-to-herself during homework questions to derive my own link between the comprehension side of literacy and that kind of maths problem.

I have wondered whether this plays a role in those reports of PISA inferring results. Do they create virtual maths results based on real literacy ones or vice versa?

PiqueABoo's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 17:08

This (including the preceding two articles linked from it) is quite an interestingread:

"PISA’s China Problem Continues: A Response to Schleicher, Zhang, and Tucker"
[Tom Loveless]

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 21:35

John - Your link makes fascinating reading. This description of a new Singaporean school is especially interesting.

"School Profile: Tampines Elementary School, Singapore

By Vivien Stewart

This school is in a working class neighborhood and is the first community school in Singapore, integrated into the community and open to the community after hours. It is one of a portfolio of different types of schools, each with its own character, that Singapore is trying to create. Its mission is that its pupils should be “enriched beyond limits, and loved beyond measure.” The goals of the school-excellence, self-directed learners, physical and aesthetic excellence and creativity-are expressions of the 21st century competencies that Singapore schools are trying to inculcate. The school employs holistic assessment across seven domains-cognitive, aesthetic, physical, creative, technological, socio-emotional, moral-mental, and leadership. A lot of emphasis was placed on the support of teams of effective teachers and on the need to engage the hearts of learners before engaging their minds. A black box theatre donated by the community, for example, allowed the use of drama to encourage self-confident speaking in both English and Chinese."

How blobby can you get? No mention of uniforms, punishment-reward based discipline, individual performance related pay for teachers or league tables.

When was the last time you heard Michael Gove or any 'Executive Academy Chain Super Principal' talk about the need for, "self-directed learners, physical and aesthetic excellence and creativity", let alone, "emphasis (was) placed on the support of teams of effective teachers" and, "the need to engage the hearts of learners before engaging their minds"?

This sounds to me like the aims of mainstream English comprehensive schooling before the marketisation and competition introduced by the 1988 Baker Education Act.

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 22:57

PiqueABoo, I do believe you have outgunned me with your latest link. This story just gets better all the time. That it is now possible for those engaged in international research into standards in education to make the assertions they do (Schliecher etal) is so much more 'Brave New World' than Orwell ever envisaged.

On a note closer to home, why is the trip to Shanghai going ahead? Who has the authority to stop the blatant attack on truth and waste of money its reporting will invariably represent? Surely it is time that the lies and distortions of leaders was exposed for what it is, an attempt to convince others that the way these sad individuals view the world bears any resemblance to truth and reality. Without unbiased reporting from the media, we have to keep campaigning until enough ordinary people's voices are heard.

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