The lesson from China? Lessen teachers' workload

Pedagogy isn't Shanghai's secret ingredient, professor argues

William Stewart

Shanghai's position at the top of the global education rankings has led to a scramble to uncover the secret of Chinese teaching methods, prompting academic investigations and government-funded visits. But one expert believes there could be more straightforward ways for England's schools to close the gap with China and other successful East Asian states.

Professor Lianghuo Fan, a former maths teacher and teacher trainer in China, argues that lower teacher workload and better classroom discipline are also key to Shanghai's stellar performance in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study. Teachers in England "must spend more time on academic and subject matters in the classroom in each lesson", the University of Southampton academic told TES.

"When I was a teacher in China, I only taught 12 classes a week, sometimes 10 a week," he said. "In China, teachers have more time to give students feedback and to have teaching research groups, and they can observe other teachers teaching in the classroom. They can engage themselves in a lot of professional development activities. It is very helpful.

"Do not spend too much time on discipline matters, on classroom management," he added. "In China you might have a 50-minute lesson and spend 48 minutes on learning mathematics. But in the UK it can be much less. The difference is very big."

Professor Fan, who has also taught at Singapore's National Institute of Education, explained that teachers in China were at an advantage because overall they "teach less" than their counterparts in England.

His comments came as research was published suggesting that much of the success of East Asian pupils in international tests is not down to the quality of the region's schools.

The study, by the University of London's Institute of Education (IoE), analyses the Pisa results of East Asian secondgeneration immigrants in Australia. It finds that they would have finished second in the overall Pisa rankings, behind Shanghai, despite being educated in a school system that came 19th. Family background, personal characteristics and other out-of-school factors were big contributors to their success.

East Asian pedagogy has become a preoccupation for UK education reformers as the region's hold on the top Pisa rankings has tightened. Admiration for Shanghai's success in maths led the UK government to establish the Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme, as a key element of the wider pound;11 million Maths Hubs programme. As well as teachers from England travelling to Shanghai to learn about teaching maths, 50 Chinese maths teachers will be coming to the UK to deliver masterclasses.

Last month two academics, also from the University of Southampton, published research concluding that the greater use of whole-class "interactive" teaching in China explains why the country's primary pupils are better at maths than their peers in England.

But Professor Fan, who has co-edited two books on maths teaching in China, cautioned: "Do not think that what Chinese teachers are doing is all good because they are also changing, they are also learning from others. Do not think that what they do is perfect."

For example, he believes that forthcoming reforms to China's university entrance exam - which will allow more flexibility in the subjects studied - are partly inspired by UK education.

And when Professor Fan spoke to TES, he had just welcomed a visiting senior academic from China who was spending six months in this country because "he wants to learn about UK maths teaching and teacher professional development".

"There are a lot of things to learn," Professor Fan said. "[In the UK] we give students flexibility, more room to be creative.

"Pedagogy matters, but in the UK we are not so bad on pedagogy. In many places we have an innovative way of teaching. The difference is not big, in my personal view as a researcher."

Despite this, East Asian pedagogy has had a major influence on the development of England's new national curriculum, as well as inspiring the exchange programme. Professor Fan said the exchanges would be "eye-opening experiences" that would pinpoint the extensive subject knowledge and qualifications of Chinese teachers as an area that England could learn from.

Parental expectations, pupils' socio-economic backgrounds and "culture, society and traditions" were also big factors in Shanghai's success, he said. But he added: "We should not feel we cannot do anything [in closing the gap with China]. Headteachers and teachers can play a really important role in determining school cultures, so we can do a lot of things."

Professor Fan will be speaking at a "Lessons from Asia" debate on 19 October in London ( For full details of the IoE study, see

`Maths will get you everywhere'

Andrew Truby, headteacher of St Thomas of Canterbury primary school in Sheffield, was one of 71 teachers from schools in England's 32 "maths hubs" to visit Shanghai in the first wave of the UK government's Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme.

"Over in Shanghai they have a saying that `maths will get you everywhere', therefore significant value is placed on being successful," says Mr Truby, who visited the 2,000-pupil Shanghai Peijia Bilingual School for six- to 18-year-olds.

Specialist teachers are used from the start of primary, Mr Truby adds, and can also deliver catch-up lessons if pupils have not understood a new concept in class. He is considering trialling a similar approach at his school for a month.

By the age of 15, students in Shanghai are an estimated two to three years ahead of their English peers in maths, according to Pisa 2012. But the study also highlights differences in culture between the Far East and the West. For example, 70 per cent of students in Shanghai attend after-school maths classes, compared with 40 per cent in the UK.

"I think that people expect to see the Chinese children sitting in rows, rote learning. And in reality, they do often sit in rows. However, in every lesson I saw highly engaged children, eager to learn and thoroughly enjoying being at school," Mr Truby says.

But the largest difference Mr Truby encountered concerned lesson observations. "It is not uncommon for 100 teachers and educational experts to observe a teacher delivering a model lesson," he says. Special lessonobservation rooms accommodate visitors and there are also two-way mirrors, he adds.

Liam Colclough, Mr Truby's deputy headteacher and specialist leader for the South Yorkshire maths hub, who also visited Shanghai, says that teachers in the Chinese city believe all pupils can do well in the subject.

"Due to their faith and trust in the curriculum and teaching methodology, every maths teacher you talk to truly believes that every single child, regardless of background, will succeed at mathematics, rather than thinking about which ones won't succeed," he says.

"The mentality in Shanghai is that, whoever you are and wherever you come from, if you work hard, you can go to the best universities." Helen Ward

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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