China Focus: Deciphering the Shanghai math myths

Source: Xinhua| 2017-08-23 18:25:09|Editor: Liangyu
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by Xinhua writers You Zhixin, Zheng Kaijun, Wu Zhendong

SHANGHAI, Aug. 23 (Xinhua) -- The English version of a popular set of Shanghai math books debuted at the Shanghai Book Fair and attracted a great number of interested Chinese readers.

Chinese publishers and scholars are inspired by the introduction of Shanghai math books to the UK and they are bringing back the fruit of such exchanges back to Shanghai. While in Britain, pupils may need to sharpen their pencils in preparation to do math "the Shanghai way."

In March, HarperCollins, one of the world's largest publishing companies, signed an agreement with Shanghai Century Publishing Group at the London Book Fair to publish an English version of the math textbooks used in Shanghai's primary schools.

The series of 36 books called "Real Shanghai Mathematics" will be used by British students from September as new term begins.


Chinese students perform excellently in math in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study assessing 15-year-olds on key knowledge and skills, mainly in the areas of reading, math and science.

According to PISA website statistics, students from Shanghai came first in 2012 in PISA, which has been held every three years since 2000. British youngsters were 25 places behind. In 2015, Chinese students also performed significantly better than their British counterparts.

In 2016, the UK Department for Education announced that it would spend 41 million pounds (53 million U.S. dollars) on a four-year program to spread the Shanghai Teaching for Mastery Programme in the country.

Chen Yilin, a math teacher from Shanghai Luwan No.1 Primary School, helped translate "Real Shanghai Mathematics" into English.

"The team spent three months on translation, word for word, with some adaptations, in accordance with the requirements of the British side," she said.

The deal between HarperCollins and Shanghai Century Publishing Group is the first time that a whole series of Chinese textbooks has been transferred to the national education system of a developed economy, but it is not the first time HarperCollins have taken Chinese textbooks overseas.

In 2015, the company published an English version of "The Shanghai Math Project," supplementary study materials originally published by East China Normal University Press and used by Shanghai students for over 20 years.

"The Shanghai Math Project" has not just been translated, but has been adapted to British needs. "Given the cultural and curricular differences, merely translating a Shanghai textbook into English would cause problems for students, so the adaption work is important. Still, we have delivered the essence of Shanghai math to British teachers and students," said Ni Ming of East China Normal University Press.

More than 400 schools in Britain are already using "The Shanghai Math Project", the Chinese publisher said.

"The feedback is mostly positive," said Fan Lianghuo of University of Southampton.

"The Shanghai Math Project" and "Real Shanghai Mathematics" are just the beginning, Fan said.


Academic exchanges between math teachers from China and Britain started in 2014.

Teacher Chen spent two weeks teaching in Thorndown Primary School in Cambridgeshire in January last year.

"Most British classes are divided into groups based on ability, with each group being taught at varying levels. The Shanghai mastery approach requires every student to completely master a concept before the teacher moves on to the next," Chen said.

In Chen's class in Thorndown, she taught the same way she did in Shanghai, which encourages whole-class interactions to make sure no one lags behind. She also demonstrated the teacher-led mastery method to groups of British teachers.

"There used to be a perception among many British teachers that teacher-led lessons were boring. After my class, I was told by British teachers that they found my method more effective," said Chen. "Teachers' talks can be interactive. Students learn through questioning and demonstration rather than figuring out the answer all by themselves."

Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, said there was much to learn from the Chinese approach to teaching mathematics in his speech at a British school in 2016, released by the UK Department for Education.

Shanghai teaching methods depend upon whole class instruction from the teacher, with constant questioning and interaction between the teacher and the class, Gibb said.


Imraan Ahmed's 11-year-old daughter studies at a private school in Birmingham, and takes her math score very seriously.

"If you want a better future or career, you'd better learn math quickly and hard, especially given Brexit," said the owner of a fashion store in Britain's second largest city.

"It's not only about math, but also about competitiveness," he said.

According to a survey in British newspaper The Telegraph in 2015, over three quarters of employers in Britain believed that action was needed to improve math, following concerns that innumeracy could have a real impact on business.

Now, while the British government is pursuing new ideas from China,the communication in education between China and Britain is not one way.

"Education is a long-term process. We should learn from each other to improve," Chen said.

"Things can be learned from British schools such as the richness of their extra-curricular activities, the well designed teaching aids and a joyful learning environment in classrooms," she said.