Chinese immigrant workers' children study in their classroom in a rural part of Shanghai March 6, 2006. [Premier Wen Jiabao] told parliament on Sunday that China would channel its surging economic growth to improve living conditions of rural people and narrow the widening gap between the country's rich cities and restive countryside. - RTXOD2E

Building bridges. (Reuters/Stringer)

There has been a growing feeling in the UK, a country with some of the most elite schools (paywall) and revered universities in the world, that their students are lagging behind students in other countries. This is particularly true in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, where the country is facing a severe shortage of skilled graduates.

In fact, when compared to students from Asia, British students are underperforming in STEM subjects from an early age. According to a recent ranking of how 15-year-olds from different countries (pdf) score in math, mainland China comes in at #5; the UK is at #27.

And now, to bring their students up to speed, the British government is planning to use Chinese textbooks in UK schools. Following a deal signed between HarperCollins and the Shanghai Century Publishing Group, textbooks used to teach mathematics in Chinese primary schools will be translated for use in Britain.

"To my knowledge, this has never happened in history before—that textbooks created for students in China will be translated exactly as they have been developed, and sold for use in British schools," Colin Hughes, the managing director of Collins Learning, told China Daily. So what is the very particular Chinese method for teaching math that leads to such outstanding results? McMullen also noticed that lessons in Shanghai are usually much shorter than in the UK, and during the lessons every child of the same age is on the same page of the textbook. 

The method, dubbed the "mastery" approach, entails a collective approach to learning where the entire classroom learns a single mathematical concept in depth, relying on standardized textbooks. The class does not move on until every student has understood the concept.

This is in marked contrast to the usual Western approach, where teachers explain a concept and then students work individually to practice a lesson. Instead of teaching the entire class at the same pace, students are recognized for their individual pace of learning and taught depending on how strong their grasp of the subject is. "The maths mastery approach is marked by careful planning, ensuring no pupil's understanding is left to chance," says the British Department of Education.

Five tidy claps

The UK's use of Chinese textbooks is part of a larger push. Last year, the UK allocated £41 million ($50 million) to implement Chinese methods in more than 8,000 primary schools in England. The British government has also flown in teachers from China to train British teachers, and plans to train 700 British educators over four years. The UK schools minister, Nick Gibb, has said that he hopes the exchange will prepare British students for the "21st century workplace."

One of those Chinese teachers was Lilianjie Lu, a primary school teacher from Shanghai, who went through a lesson on fractions at Fox primary school in Kensington, London, while local teachers sat at the back and took notes, according to a Guardian article:

Lu begins by asking the children to read out the fractions on the screen. One child gives the answer—"a half"—then the rest of the children repeat. Another child identifies a third, everyone repeats, a quarter, and so on.

At the end of this part of the lesson the children give themselves a clap—not a boisterous round of applause with whoops and cheers, but five precise claps in a set rhythm. Then the children read the fractions out all over again before Lu moves on to how to write fractions.

There is nothing random about how to write a fraction, it turns out. First you draw the line, then you write the denominator (below the line), and finally the numerator, above the line. In that order.

"Can you write the fractions now? Yes or no?" she asks the children. The children write them in their books then are called out individually to the front to write them on the board. Five more tidy claps.

The class is repetitive, going over and over similar territory, stretching the children slightly further as the lesson progresses, picking up on mistakes and making sure that everyone is keeping up.

This is the "Shanghai mastery approach", a methodical curriculum, aimed at developing and embedding a fluency, deep knowledge, and understanding of underlying mathematical concepts.

Observing this, Ben McMullen, another teacher at the school who has travelled to Shanghai to observe teaching in local primary schools, said "English teachers would have moved on so much more quickly." McMullen also noticed that lessons in Shanghai are usually much shorter than in the UK, and during the lessons every child of the same age is on the same page of the textbook.

The difference in the Western approach to teaching math and the mastery approach is inherently a cultural one. While teachers in the Western countries such as the UK take a more individualistic approach, Asian teachers spend more time on collective learning. British schools are said to employ more of a "mindset" approach, according to Alexei Vernitski, of the University of Essex, and Sherria Hoskins, head of psychology at the University of Portsmouth. In the mindset approach, the aim is to get students to understand broader mathematical concepts. Students start with complex concepts that are then broken down into smaller steps.

China's mastery approach extends to teachers as well. Teachers in Shanghai are trained to teach a specific subject and only teach that subject, whereas primary-school teachers in the West are usually generalists and teach all subjects. In fact, a study that compared 162 third-grade mathematics teachers in the US and China found that, while American teachers knew more about general educational theories and classroom skills, Chinese teachers had more knowledge of the subject they were teaching.

Simply put, they were better at the math.

The Sino-British experiment has even become fodder for a humorous BBC documentary titled Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School. In it, a British school brings in Chinese teachers and Chinese teaching methods for month, and chaos ensues.

Skeptics of the program point to cultural differences between British and Chinese schools. Some say that students in the UK are unused to the rigor and long classroom hours experienced by Chinese students, while others say that Chinese schools are testing factories that do not teach creativity. But a study of 140 schools in UK carried out by UCL Institute of Education and Cambridge University found that students taught through the mastery approach were learning faster than their classmates taught using Western models of teaching math, making about an extra month of progress in an calendar year.

Ironically, while the UK is attempting to emulate China's success in mathematics education, Chinese parents are demanding a more "Western" approach to education in China. They are vying to enroll their children in the Chinese arms of British private schools such as Wycombe Abbey and Harrow and China's education ministry has recently looked to UK educators for tips on how to encourage creativity.