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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 ...

In less than an hour, her kids have practised a skill as fundamental to map-reading as it is to tracking the performance of a hedge fund.

“We have, I feel, a wider view on math education,” says Gu Hong-da, an educator at the centre of how Shanghai kids learn to manipulate numbers. “Math is fully connected to life, to science and technology and the economy – and to how to use tools to solve problems in those fields.”

Mr. Gu, 72, has been part of Shanghai’s math scene for more than 50 years. He began as a math teacher, worked as a principal, directed educational research, served as president of the local education college, and has organized math competitions. He was a student before the Communist Revolution, and worked in the system after it.

“I have experience in all of the phrases of educational reforms,” he says during an interview in downtown Shanghai. “And I’m also the one who carried out the policies.”

He carries around a simple set of tools to illustrate how they have changed: photocopied pages of complex sketches in early math textbooks; now, photographs of bridges and skyscrapers. The meaning is clear: The sketches are eye-glazing abstractions; the pictures are a chance to see numbers at work in brick and steel.

Out, then, are theoretical sine and cosine curves; in are exercises using trigonometry to recreate McDonald’s Golden Arches or calculate the height of Shanghai’s famous Oriental Pearl Tower. Also in are teacher-mandated shopping trips to practice adding up grocery bills and subtracting change for elementary students.

“Shanghai, as a developed Chinese coastal city, has built the most advanced bridge for mathematics to solve real problems in life and production,” Mr. Gu says.

Take calculators: Unlike most of China, Shanghai allows them in university placement tests. “The benefit of this method is to allow students to save time calculating and instead spend more time probing the math world and improving their thinking style,” Mr. Gu says.

At the same time, teachers are working to decrease pressure on students. Shanghai schools have lately grown obsessed with whittling down homework, encouraging teachers to be more intelligent in the way they teach, and the work they require of students.

At the Shanghai Luwan primary, several parents say their children routinely have no math homework at all. Chen Lili has her son, in Grade 5, play piano, guitar and drums.

Hours of homework just don’t wash, says another Grade 5 parent, Bao Yinglei, whose son plays basketball and practises computer programming rather than spending all his time on math drills. “This generation won’t do it. When we were children, studies were a priority for our parents. Now, our children have their own ideas.”

“Actually,” she adds, “I feel Chinese families are quite interested in fostering their children’s art sensibilities and skills.”

Even Gu Chao, a Shanghai youth who took the gold medal at the 2013 International Mathematical Olympiad, was enrolled in a primary school that emphasized language education. “I deliberately left math to him for his own probing,” says his mother.

The city also obsesses over its instructional staff, holding regular city-wide “elite teachers training” seminars where the best get together, and teach others. The process happens inside schools, too, where math teachers are organized in teams that meet weekly to share best practices and mentor younger educators.

Teachers are expected to mark everything overnight, providing quick feedback for students. And they face their own ongoing testing requirements. Mid-level teachers are expected to complete 240 hours of further training every five years; for upper-level teachers, it’s 540 hours (including 300 hours of research). Each five-year period is capped with performance assessment.

“If your scores don’t reach a certain level, then you lose your job,” says Deng Weihong, vice-principal at the Shanghai primary school.

A new pressure cooker

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