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Math teacher exchange program adds up to success

Updated: 2015-04-19 14:44
By Wang Mingjie and Zhang Chunyan (China Daily Europe)

Education professionals in China and the UK welcome spirit of cooperation

A math teacher exchange program between China and the United Kingdom has received positive feedback and will continue in the coming months, officials and teachers from both nations say.

There is also an agreement between publishers to publish an English version of a Chinese math textbook, which will hit British bookshelves this summer.

 Math teacher exchange program adds up to success

Wang Chengjun, a Shanghai math teacher, teaches pupils the multiplication table at the Wroxham School in England in March. Wang Mingjie / China Daily

In November 2014 and March, two groups, including 59 teachers from Shanghai, shared their experience and skills in English primary schools.

Shanghai students topped the ranks in math, reading and science in the OECD's 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, which evaluates education systems worldwide. UK students ranked 26th in math.

The UK's PISA ranking led to its interest in Shanghai's education methods. The teacher exchange is part of the British government's math hub program, a national network of outstanding schools announced in December 2013 to promote excellence in math teaching.

British teachers say techniques introduced by their Shanghai colleagues, such as spending longer periods of time on subjects, have already had a positive impact. Another method is teaching from the top - reinforcing the expectation that all students are capable and expected to achieve high standards.

The exchange has encouraged UK teachers to change their approach to lesson planning and to develop a deep understanding and fluency in mathematics.

British School Reform Minister Nick Gibb stresses the significance of the mastering math.

"This exchange program enables our teachers to develop their professional skills by working with those from the most successful math education system in the world."

"The Shanghai approach - with children taught as a whole class, building depth of understanding of the structure of mathematics, supported by the use of high-quality textbooks - is proving a hit in those schools where it's been tried."

Charlie Stripp, director of the National Center for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, welcomes the teacher exchange program.

"It was immensely encouraging to see how willingly pupils adapted to being taught math by a teacher from China, and the enthusiastic way in which the English teachers engaged with their Shanghai counterparts, and, as a result, began to change their practice.

"This exposure to Shanghai teaching methods is helping primary school children develop a deeper understanding of the structure of math and how numbers fit together, something that will be of invaluable benefit as they journey through school and life."

Shen Yang, minister counselor at the Chinese embassy in Britain, says the exchange is innovative and groundbreaking.

"Chinese-style math lessons and approaches in England embody the new cooperation between the two countries.

"Through practical teaching and experience-sharing, teachers from both countries are trying to find out the differences between the two math education systems, raise standards and learn from each other," Shen says.

Wang Chengjun, one of the Shanghai math teachers who taught at Wroxham School in England in March, believes that one of the prominent differences between the two countries is that in China each mathematical expression has a clear name for it. English schools tend to use general terms such as "number" for almost every part of the mathematical operation.

"The lack of specific mathematical expression fails to enable English pupils to establish a precise mathematical concept system, which in turn might cause more troubles as they progress with their math studies." Wang adds.

Sally Barber, math coordinator at Wroxham, in Hertfordshire, supports Wang's observation. "What we have noticed is that the language these Chinese teachers use is so precise. The year 3 class is being told, from the start of the Shanghai math teacher's lesson, that this is the addend and if you add two addends together you get the sum."

"In English instead of using that language, we talk about nouns and verbs right from the very early stage in math, and children kind of shy away from it. To hear that precise kind of language and use it right from the start, the children love it, so we all decided to make sure that the language we are using is consistent all the way through the school and is very precise."

Gibb says a further phase of the exchange is set to take place in the autumn and spring terms of the 2015- 2016 academic year, focusing on secondary math teaching. Through the math network Chinese teachers will lead classes and training sessions with other schools.

The teacher exchange, which is coordinated by the UK Department for Education and the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, has also sparked the interest of British publisher Harper Collins, which has signed a contract with East China Normal University Press to publish a redesigned English version of a Chinese supplementary mathematics textbook called One Lesson, One Exercise.

The English version of the textbook will take content from the Chinese and British education systems and adapt it to the needs of British students. It will become a textbook option, like the Singapore's math book, for British schools.

While some critics doubt whether the books would be popular and suitable for British students, others think these kinds of books are one reason that Chinese students have so much homework.

"I think by embedding the mastery approach, which these textbooks really follow, it is all about getting students more confident by making sure they go deeper in their mathematics, instead of moving on very quickly from one topic to the next or accelerating their learning," says Penny Richardson, math hub lead at Matrix Maths Hub.

"By going deeper, our children can master that conceptual understanding of mathematics, being able to problem-solve, being able to apply their math in different contexts."

Barber says she likes the idea of having a good textbook but would not stick with the same one all the time.

"Choice is important," she says, but adds that having a single, well-researched textbook is a good resource. "For new teachers, and teachers who aren't confident in math, if you have one book that you know, the exercises are always going to be well thought through, not easily leading to misperception and also on target to deliver the objectives. That's a great start point.

"But the idea of being able to have your own flexibility, if you have the experience and knowledge, is also very important."

Ning Hui contributed to this story.

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