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Su Jin teaches basic geometry to a grade four class at Shanghai Luwan First Central Primary School. Shanghai math students lead international testing scores. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)
Su Jin teaches basic geometry to a grade four class at Shanghai Luwan First Central Primary School. Shanghai math students lead international testing scores. (Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail)

What Shanghai can teach us about teaching math Add to ...

This story is part of a series on Canada’s ongoing debate about how best to teach math in our schools.

The lesson starts simply, just a basic six-by-six grid marked with the Shanghai Luwan First Central Primary School – and several nearby snack shops.

Nie Xiao, the teacher, points to one.

“How can we find it?” she asks. “Four hundred years ago, scientists already figured out how. … Do you think you can learn how, too?”

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The class of third-graders snaps to attention.

“Hao!” they cry in, unison – “Yes!” – and Ms. Nie explains to them how to identify a location with a grid, matching horizontal and vertical axes. She starts at 0,0, then works her way out, introducing 3,4, then 5,2.

They may not know it yet, but these students are already on their way to becoming global math elites. No country does better in math than China. And the city of Shanghai is to math what Edmonton is to hockey – an outsized producer of gifted protégés. In the latest round of tests by the Program for International Student Assessment, the city’s students were about three years ahead of the average among member nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

These sorts of scores have won China attention – and produced an epidemic of hand-wringing everywhere else. When the same tests revealed that Canada’s math scores, while still above average, are slipping, former deputy prime minister John Manley said the problem was “on the scale of a national emergency.” In British Columbia, a group of Chinese-educated tutors has called on the province to look to Asia to improve its performance, saying local math skills are “weak and getting weaker.” Alberta and Ontario are introducing more drills, to make its math classes look more like China’s.

Britain has gone a step further, dispatching Education Minister Elizabeth Truss to Shanghai for a recent fact-finding mission – “its skyscrapers, and its ambitions, are all built on maths,” she observed – and to recruit dozens of Chinese teachers to its own schools. The Global Times, a Communist Party-run tabloid, called the teacher exports “weapons of math instruction.”

But figuring out exactly what China is doing right that everyone else is doing wrong requires a complex calculation: Part of China’s success stems from cultural factors – not educational methodology. And within China, education experts are only too eager to criticize the failings of their system – which can drill students until their pencils crack – even as other countries try to replicate it.

The East-West way

In fact, in the past decade China has taken a series of steps to make its classrooms feel more like those in the West.

“Chinese teachers and principals are now apt to adopt elements of Western education to better protect children’s spirits, so they can grow up in a happier and freer study environment,” says Lao Kaisheng, an education professor at Capital Normal University in Beijing.

Indeed, in Shanghai’s classrooms – at least the ones city education authorities are willing to show Western eyes – something surprising emerges: Math here is undeniably engaging.

Back in Ms. Nie’s classroom, in a quiet downtown neighbourhood, a few dozen students sit quietly while she talks. But when she asks a question, a forest of hands pops up.

“Do you like checkers?” she asks her eight- and nine-year-olds.

“Yes!” the class shouts again.

On the projector screen, Ms. Nie displays a half-filled board. A single well-placed piece will win the game. It falls to the class to use number pairs to describe where it goes.

Then it’s time for Ms. Nie to bring the class’s fun and games home. She displays a National Geographic map of China with a star for Shanghai’s location. This is their home. But it’s not just a spot on a map, she explains, it’s a plot on a grid: in this case, 31.2 degrees north, 121.4 east.

“So this is an example of number pairs,” she says. “And this is how scientists invented the GPS to help us travel.”

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