‘My Perfect Country’: Shanghai – A Model for Teaching Maths

Photo: Schoolboys solving a math problem in class at the Shanghai Number Eight High School. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Schoolboys solving a math problem in class at the Shanghai Number Eight High School. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

In Shanghai, students are better at maths than anywhere else in the world. According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, Shanghai maths students are three years ahead of the PISA average. That means a 15-year-old in Shanghai is better at maths than most 18-year-olds in the UK. And, 55% of students are considered ‘top performers’.

Behind these impressive results is the Shanghai ‘mastery’ approach to teaching maths, which assumes every pupil can be a maths master. There is no streaming according to ability, the highly trained, specialist teacher moves slowly through topics and does not move on until every single pupil gets it. And, so the foundations are laid for a rock solid mathematical understanding.

But with criticisms levelled at the high-pressure Asian schooling system, where success is often underpinned by hours of homework and extra tuition, is the mastery maths method an approach our imagined perfect country should adopt?

Based on the testimonies of teachers, parents and pupils recorded in Shanghai, as well as in a UK school that has adopted the Shanghai mastery maths method, the team discuss the pros and cons with the help of Anne Watson, emeritus professor of Mathematics Education at Oxford University.

Visit the My Perfect Country: Shanghai-site to listen to the episode.