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From Russia with lesson in mini-breaks

Linda Wilson and Carolyn Andrew find out how St Petersburg primary teachers liven up their maths lessons, while in Britain learning tables by rote is back in fashion, courtesy of the numeracy hour

Many explanations have been offered for England's relatively poor performance in international maths surveys. The lack of whole-class teaching, excessive use of calculators and poor motivation levels are just a few of the reasons that have been advanced.

But research at Sunderland University suggests that the structure of primary maths lessons may be another contributory factor.

We have been comparing the teaching of seven and nine-year-olds in the North of England and St Petersburg as Russian children's number skills are among the best in Europe.We have found that lessons in English schools are generally longer than Russian ones and are structured differently.

The lessons we observed in English schools in 1999 lasted from 38 to 72 minutes, with 43 per cent lasting 60 minutes or more. Russian lessons ranged from 35 to 55 minutes, with 67 per cent within the 40-50 minute range. In England, lessons tend to be timed to fit between breaks, while in Russia the breaks fit between the lessons.

Russian teachers also give their pupils several one-minute breaks in a lesson when various activities take place in the aisles between desk rows. Children may recite a poem, sing a song or do some physical exercises. On one occasion, we were entertained with a rendition of "Heads, shoulders, knees and toes" (in English). Russian lessons consist of a sequence of comparatively short, linked tasks, often constructed around a theme. One lesson we observed was based on a visit to a dacha.

By contrast, we found that there is a long section in English lessons that is not present in Russian lessons. During this section - often lasting 20-30 minutes and, in some cases, up to 40 minutes - pupils generally work individually at the same task for the whole time. This leads to intermittent, rather than sustained, interaction between the teachers and most pupils. There is therefore potential for pupils' concentration to drift and for the pace to slacken.

However, judging by our latest visit to St Petersburg - two months ago - maths teaching in England and Russia has become more similar since 1999.

While English maths lessons, prompted by the numeracy strategy, have incorporated some eastern European approaches, teachers in St Petersburg have adopted practices that are generally associated with England and the United States. For example, whereas our numeracy strategy has stressed the importance of interactive whole-class teaching and mental and oral work, Russian children are undertaking an increasing amount of independent and individual written work - partly because workbooks are more available. The St Petersburg teachers are also spending more time monitoring children's work. However, their maths lessons remain predominantly oral and interactive.

The intriguing question, raised by the more recent observations in St Petersburg, is whether the Russians will encounter the same problems as the English have as they extend the time spent on individual, private, written work.

Linda Wilson and Carolyn Andrew are lecturers in mathematics education at the University of Sunderland

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