Speech: Shanghai maths teaching exchange: opening ceremony

Can I start by saying how delighted I am to welcome the Shanghai teachers to the Department for Education for the opening ceremony of the England-China teacher exchange. This exchange is perhaps the most valuable education initiative undertaken by our government over the past few years. In years to come, I hope people will look back on it as a turning point which transformed the teaching of mathematics in this country.

I have heard rumours that an English documentary called ‘Chinese School’ has been circulating in Shanghai, so can I commend all the teachers from Shanghai on your bravery for being here today! I assure you that your experiences will bear no resemblance to that television show.

You will be extremely well cared for in our schools, allowing this leg of the exchange to be a wholly productive, positive and educationally profitable experience for Chinese and English teachers alike.

Why do I believe this exchange is such a valuable initiative? In a wider context, it is part of a growing partnership between China and Britain, not just in education, but also in investment, trade and culture. Last month, President Xi Jinping made the first Chinese state visit to Britain in 10 years, staying at Buckingham Palace – just down the road from here.

During the state visit, I was honoured to accompany Madame Peng Liyuan, the Chinese First Lady, on a visit to Fortismere College in north London. Of all state schools in London, Fortismere has the most pupils studying Mandarin aged 16 – and this is set to become a growing trend. Our government has pledged £10 million to teach Mandarin to 5,000 pupils so that they are fluent by the time they leave school.

In addition, the British Chancellor George Osborne has pledged £7 million for a showcase of British culture to travel to China, including exhibits from the British Museum; musical training from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden; and from the British Library literary treasures by writers such as William Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

But we are really here to talk about mathematics. As a Member of Parliament, in a Parliament with a very small majority, I am almost never granted time to travel abroad, and I greatly regret not having travelled yet to visit the schools in Shanghai.

However, those working in the department lucky enough to have done so have told me a great deal. The more I learn about mathematics teaching in Shanghai, the more impressed I am by its rigour and success. All going well, I hope to visit some of Shanghai’s schools in the spring.

As far as I can tell, the success of Shanghai mathematics rests on 3 core principles. The first is high-quality resources. An enormous amount of thought and care goes into the construction of the Shanghai mathematics curriculum, planning in great detail every step of a pupil’s path to understanding.

To pick up on a word used by our previous speaker, Jo Mackie, these resources – and the wider approach to teaching in Shanghai – are meticulous. No pupil’s understanding is left to chance or accident: every step of a lesson is deliberate, purposeful and precise.

This is not to say that the common Shanghai curriculum and textbooks constrain teacher creativity. Quite the opposite: high-quality resources provide a foundation upon which creative and imaginative teaching can be built. I was delighted to hear one official from the department, who was on the Shanghai leg of the exchange in September, describe to me a lesson he observed at Fushan Primary School. The teacher’s lesson fitted into the Shanghai curriculum, but she used her creativity to explain polyominoes through discussing the classic Nintendo game Tetris.

The British publishers Harper Collins have been translating the Shanghai mathematics practice books to be published this autumn, so that English schools can benefit from their expertise.

Secondly, Shanghai teaching methods depend upon clear, whole-class teacher instruction. Last year, a fascinating piece of research was published by an English education professor at Southampton University, and his Chinese postgraduate research student. They tested 562 nine- and ten-year-olds from Southampton in England, and from Nanjing in China, using the tests from the international research project TIMSS. On average, Chinese pupils scored 83%, and English pupils 56%.

More interesting than this, though, was when the researchers videoed lessons in both countries, to find out what teaching methods were being used to such great success in the Chinese classroom. The answer was clear: in Chinese classrooms, whole-class teaching made up 72% of lesson time, compared with only 24% of lesson time in England. In England, almost half of the time – 47% – was used up on pupils working individually or in groups, compared with only 28% of the time in China.

This research demonstrates the mistaken distrust of ‘teacher talk’ that has dominated teaching in Britain for too long. As the researchers from Southampton University concluded:

whole-class interactive teaching with the teacher exploring pupils’ knowledge through questioning and demonstration is more effective than seat work where children work through exercises themselves.

There is a perception that can still be found in some British schools that teacher-led lessons are, by their very nature, boring and unimaginative. However, those English teachers who have returned from the Shanghai exchange, and have seen you teach can tell us that nothing could be further from the truth. Teacher talk can be highly interactive: pupils ask questions, engage in conversations, are given short problems to consider, and are invited to demonstrate solutions to the rest of the class.

One teacher from last year’s primary exchange reported that the Shanghai pupils are:

…keen to contribute, and are not frightened of getting the wrong answer or making mistakes. All children believe they can achieve. They have a more structured approach to mathematics and know what to expect yet at the same time have far more freedoms to explore mathematics. They love it!

To my mind, such whole class interactive teaching is the pinnacle of good practice.

Lastly, Shanghai mathematics teaching is based upon the principle that, if taught well, all pupils can master the content of a lesson. There appears to be no conception in Shanghai that some pupils can ‘do’ mathematics, whilst others cannot. Instead, the focus is on all pupils mastering a concept before moving to the next part of the curriculum sequence, allowing no pupil to be left behind.

Interestingly, many English teachers returning from the Shanghai legs of the exchange have observed that, over the course of a year, Shanghai pupils are taught less content, but learn that content much more thoroughly. This emphasis on depth before breadth ensures that the solid foundations are laid for the future achievement of all pupils.

I recently met with Jun Yang-Williams, a science teacher from Shaanxi, who taught science in the ‘Chinese School’ documentary. She told me a Chinese saying that has really stayed with me: “If a teacher’s job is to deliver knowledge equivalent to the size of a glass of water, she must possess knowledge equivalent to a bucket.” Yours is a national culture that takes education seriously, and I hope such a profound passion for teaching can be shared with your host schools during this leg of the exchange.

In addition, this exchange can hopefully dispel a few myths about Chinese teaching. There is an assumption amongst European countries when faced with the great results gained by Far East jurisdictions in international surveys such as the PISA tests, that if pupils are doing that well in mathematics, they cannot be enjoying themselves.

I know this is untrue – because Shanghai pupils themselves have said so. As well as testing pupils for their mathematical ability, the 2012 PISA survey asked pupils whether they agreed with the following statement: ‘I feel happy at school’. In Shanghai, 85% of pupils agreed, which was above the OECD average, and above many European school systems such as the Netherlands, Finland, Germany and – I am sorry to say – the United Kingdom.

But do not let my comments suggest that the benefits of this exchange will work only in one direction. Much can be learnt from the range of exemplary English schools taking part in the exchange. Our schools pride themselves on the range and interest of the school curriculum; the richness of their extra-curricular activities; and the warmth of relationship between teachers and pupils.

And whilst here, I hope you will enjoy all that British culture has to offer. I encourage those teaching at the Minster School and Beauchamp College in the East Midlands to make the journey to Melton Mowbrary to try some of their famous pork pies – our version of the Chinese dumpling. Those teaching at the John Cabot Academy in Bristol should try some – but not too much – of the West Country cider. And I would encourage those staying in Stratford in the East End of London to steer well clear of the jellied eels.

To give a quick crash course in English culture, we are passionate about queuing, always start conversations with a discussion of the weather, and say ‘sorry’ even if we don’t mean to apologise. (Sorry about that!) Also, be aware that this Thursday evening, 5 November, is Bonfire Night – one of the most peculiar celebrations in the English calendar. Towns around the country will light enormous fires to celebrate the fact that, 400 years ago, someone tried and failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament, just over the road from here.

I understand that some of the Shanghai teachers will be working at Chailey School in Sussex, not far from the Sussex constituency I represent in Parliament. Close by is the town of Lewes, which has one of the most famous and spectacular bonfire night displays in England.

It is fortunate that the Houses of Parliament were not blown up 400 years ago. President Xi Jinping addressed both Houses in the Houses of Parliament last month and in his speech he quoted Confucius, saying “To learn knowledge is better than to acquire knowledge but to love knowledge is better than both.”

I hope that this love of knowledge and spirit of cultural exchange accompanies you throughout your time in English schools. I will be visiting Wycombe High School in 2 weeks’ time and am looking forward to seeing the Shanghai approach to the teaching of maths.

For the next 3 weeks, I wish you all the very best of luck. If the outstanding success of the primary exchange last year is anything to go by, this will be a once in a lifetime opportunity for you to enjoy an immersion in English culture, and to have a wholly positive impact on the mathematics teaching in the schools that you visit.

I cannot wait to hear about the results. Thank you.

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