by Katrina White, Jo Mills and Ruth Colenso (January 2020)
This post explains some of the things Katie, Jo (both primary school teachers) and Ruth (secondary maths teacher) experienced during their visit to Shanghai. In March 2020 some teachers from Shanghai will come to England. Some will be based at Saffron Walden County High School and others at Burrowmoor Primary School. Do look out for the Shanghai Showcase events that are open to all and which will be advertised shortly.
What was the structure of the school day?
There were some differences in terms of the length of a school day depending on the school setting and the after-school lessons that were provided. Generally, lessons lasted approximately 45 minutes and began with either eye exercises or aerobics. The key point we took away from the structure of the school day was that mathematics lesson were given equal weighting with Mandarin and English lessons. While the main lesson only lasted 45 minutes, there were daily practice sessions. In the schools we went to, there were between five and seven maths lessons per week. Homework was rarely sent home, apparently due too much support being given by parents! Instead, this work would be completed independently or with a peer and marked by a teacher, who could then decide if a student needed extra support.
Uniformity in maths teaching
60% of mathematics teachers in Shanghai trained at Shanghai Normal University, which is involved in ongoing development of the Shanghai curriculum.
There was one textbook used across all schools in Shanghai, regardless of district. All pupils were working on the same topics at roughly the same time.
Due to the uniform curriculum, teachers were regularly involved in TRGs (Teacher Research Groups) in their own school as well as in district level TRGs. Teachers would observe lessons that they had just taught or were about to teach. This gave them the opportunity to reflect on what they had seen and to adapt their teaching. We observed a district-level lesson and TRG in which over 200 Grade 4 (Year 5) teachers were involved. This was just amazing and could only be achieved because of the uniformity of the textbook structure and timings in schools (no schools were more than a fortnight apart in terms of content).
Attitudes to Learning (cultural differences)
In the classroom, there was a real ethos of collaborative learning and support. Children were encouraged to work together without giving each other the answers. Children would often be called on to correct their own or someone else’s work which was not seen as a failure but a learning opportunity. Pupils were respectful and the learning moved on through these learning opportunities. While this is something that we are developing in England, we often find that peer support involves giving an answer rather than explaining how to find it. This is something we have been working on in our own classrooms in an attempt to develop better reasoning skills in all our learners.
Emphasis on efficient calculation… Pupils were not allowed calculators until Grade 9 (Year 10) so children were expected to regularly carry out complicated calculations using patterns, algorithms and known facts. Pupils in Shanghai were fluent in calculations which helped to reduce their cognitive load so they could cope with generalisations and pattern spotting. In English secondary schools we are still seeing dependency on the use of calculators, which could possibly be having a negative impact on fluency.
Behaviour for learning was exemplary. Children knew when to play and when to ready themselves for learning. During settling periods, class prefects were seen instructing their peers which had a positive impact and developed a sense of collective responsibility for whole class behaviour. It was very rare for us to see a teacher reprimanding their pupils. From this, we saw resilient, responsible and enthusiastic learners which is something we want to promote in our own schools.
Support from home in Shanghai was very evident, to the point that sometimes parents/grandparents would explore harder concepts before they were taught in school. We were also told by teachers that if a pupil was deemed to be ‘struggling’ then the first port of call would be to involve parents/grandparents. Obviously there are still a few children who didn’t receive quite the same level of home support and the teachers have adapted their planning to address this. In England we are still seeing negative attitudes towards mathematics (“I can’t do maths… “) so it is crucial that we try to find a way to engage home support in mathematics to ensure that it has the same high-profile as subjects such as reading.