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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 ...

It’s a reminder that, for all the effort to file away the harsh edges of China’s education system, the stakes for math students are high – and the country remains brutally competitive. Teachers may cut back homework – but for many students, any free time is more than compensated for by extra work assigned by parents. An OECD study found that 71 per cent of Chinese students use after-school math tutoring (in Canada, it’s 27 per cent).

Despite talk of putting kids in bands or basketball, says math whiz Mr. Gu, in China “I am afraid few students go out for fun on Saturday.” When he was younger, he spent some time at a home-stay in the United States. He was struck by the fact that students there didn’t leave school to check in with a tutor.

“They might do sports on Saturday, and go to church on Sunday,” he says.

In China, the math competitions start at primary school, where marks take on punishing importance. That’s because students aren’t just preparing for university placement tests – they have to write high-school placements tests, too. And in each of those tests, they are scribbling the script for rest of their lives. Education remains the primary lever for upward social mobility in China.

Parents, too, imbue school performance with great importance. A child is meant “to bring glory to its ancestors, or retirement support for parents,” says education professor Mr. Lao. “It deeply affects China’s culture of bringing up children, which creates huge pressure on children when they are little.”

The problem: The exams, and the teachers who teach to them, actually do a poor job of measuring a student’s ability. “Our current exam policies only test very limited factors, such as memorization, comprehensive capability,” Mr. Gu says. Left untested are creativity, social and communication skills.

Another gap in the Chinese system is realizing the full potential of that early dedication to math. Once the elementary math tournaments are done and the university placement tests written, the incentives for excellence run dry. Students do “nothing in the much more critical higher education stage – that is the real flaw in their education system,” says Zuming Feng, who is head coach of the U.S. team at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Take Mr. Gu: Now in university, he figures he spends 20 to 30 hours a week on math studies – less than the amount he spent in middle school.

For countries desperate to match China’s success then, Shanghai offers something less than a silver bullet. The city’s methods do suggest that for the sorts of skills tests can measure, basic math exercises (the sort of “rote” material that has been actively eroded in Canada in recent years) are vital. But so is supporting high-performance teaching that can bring numbers to life, and draw meaning from the dreaded drills. “Repeated exercise can be very helpful if it is not simply repeating – rather, a lot of variations are inserted,” Mr. Feng says.

Underlying Shanghai’s stellar test scores, though, is something far more difficult to transplant elsewhere: what happens outside the classroom. Chinese math performance, for better or for worse, is driven in large measure by a cultural commitment to pouring hours into math, eschewing soccer games for quadratic equations.

Chinese students “just work hard. That’s all,” says Ken Wang, academic director at UltiTutor, a Shanghai-based tutoring agency. “There’s nothing else to say. There’s no special tricks or gimmicks. We’re just hard workers.”

With assistance from Globe and Mail researcher Yu Mei.

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