Lukewarm response by DfE to Shanghai Maths evaluation – what could be the reason?

Janet Downs's picture

Maths Mastery, Shanghai Maths, Teaching for Mastery (TfM) have been buzz words since Shanghai topped PISA league tables in 2009.  School minister Nick Gibb is a passionate advocate.  He must have been eager to read the evaluation of the Shanghai Maths Teacher Exchange (MTE).     

But the Department for Education’s response was somewhat muted.    It mentioned only the enthusiasm of teachers taking part and the positive effects in Key Stage One (KS1).

This was followed by a quotation from Gibb.  It begins with ‘Standards are rising in our schools, with 84% of pupils…’  I’ll leave readers to complete this.  Gibb continued:

There has, for example, been a marked increase in the number of primary schools using whole class teaching rather than seeing pupils split by attainment.’

It’s hardly surprising the use of whole teaching rose: it’s a key component of Shanghai Maths as is mixed-attainment teaching.  It would be rather odd if teachers taking part in the trial didn’t use its methods.  And 'the number of primary schools' refers only to those in the trial not all primaries as implied.

And that’s it.

Why did the analysis provoke such a lukewarm DfE response?  

The findings were ‘inconclusive’.  There were ‘positive impacts’ in KS1 but ‘no quantifiable evidence’ that MTE leads to improved maths attainment in KS2 ‘over and above changes implemented in contrast schools.’ 

The authors also said the methodology used in the analysis – a ‘quasi experimental design with a matched comparison group’ – could not ‘establish causality’.  The findings, therefore, could not be ‘generalised’.  Further evaluation was needed to identify which MTE strategies were most effective and whether Shanghai Maths was cost-effective.

That’s not to say the report isn’t worth reading.  It conveys valuable insights. For example, teachers felt that many barriers to implementation were outside schools’ control: funding, teacher turnover, lack of resources, an over-stuffed maths National Curriculum which didn’t allow for strong foundations to be established and Ofsted.  Many interviewees thought inspectors would have insufficient understanding of mastery methods and criticise teaching for lack of ‘differentiation’ or ‘pace’.

Some interviewees wanted a standard textbook to ensure consistent maths teaching.  Music to Gibb’s ears.  However, others used various materials to design their own lessons which matched mastery principles. 

One feature of Shanghai Maths unlikely to be taken up by Gibb is low class contact time.  Shanghai teachers spent far less time with pupils than did their English peers.  But if Gibb is serious about MTE he needs to embrace the whole strategy and not just cherry pick those parts which fit his prejudices – textbooks and whole-class teaching.

Whole-class teaching in this context is not a teacher lecturing to passive pupils.  It’s involving all children in skilful questioning designed to make them think.  And it’s based on the ‘concrete – pictorial – abstract’ philosophy I met in teacher training college (those alleged hot-beds of Marxist theology which produced the 'Blob').

Perhaps Gibb should spend time using Cuisenaire rods and Dienes blocks before pontificating on how teachers should teach.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 03/02/2019 - 15:20

The key quote from the link in Janet's article is:

Maths Mastery, Shanghai Maths, Teaching for Mastery (TfM) have been buzz words since Shanghai topped PISA league tables in 2009.  School minister Nick Gibb is a passionate advocate.

But my article of December 2016  makes the point that any analysis of national education systems based on pupil testing will always be flawed unless national cohort cognitive ability/general intelligence is taken into account. When IQs are taken into account in the 2015 PISA maths round, the regions of China perform relatively poorly coming in at 39th, 45th and 47th. This is because those regions of China have high mean IQs (on the UK scale that has a mean of 100).

I am well aware that an influential section of the sociologically inclined left are general intelligence deniers and will not accept my analysis. For them, the false arguments of Gibb & Co will be that much much harder to refute, allowing the current behaviourist enthusiasm for 'knowledge/instruction' based learning to spread without rigorous challenge.

My IQ mediated PISA analysis articles have been endorsed at the highest academic levels, and are among my most read throughout the world. No critical comment or challenge to the methodology has yet been received.

Of the high performance of students of Chinese ethnicity in the US and English education systems there is no doubt. In the US, students of minority Chinese ethnic background dominate the Ivy League universities. In England we have CATs data that confirms the very high mean cognitive ability of ethnically Chinese pupils. See p10 of this GL Assessment report, which states that in the CAT Quantitative test they have a mean score of 110 (75th percentile - top 25%) and in the Non-Verbal CAT a mean score of 112 (79th pecentile - top 21%)

The first key point is that this is for Chinese ethnicity students that have been through the US and UK education systems that have poor PISA rankings and score even worse in my IQ mediated rankings (53rd and 49th).

The second key point refers to the common explanation of the high performance of ethnically Chinese children being down to exceptionally 'driven' parenting. But CATs are tests of cognitive ability/IQ, not attainment resulting from 'hard work' and 'pushy parents'.

Once again, Janet has exposed educationally highly dubious thinking, inconsistency and deliberate obfuscation at the political levels of the DfE.

On the basis of my analysis it is clear why there would be a lack of enthusiasm for Chinese teaching mehods on the part of education professionals, rather than political ideologues.

Uncomfortable though it may be to recognise large differences in mean IQ between different ethnic groups, I argue that these are driven by cultures rather than inherently ethnic genetic differences.  I explain here how 'memes can get into genes' through sexual selection driven by culture.



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