I moved to Norway when I was 15, it was in the middle of autumn, pretty cold already. I did not know anyone outside my family, and what was worse, I did not know a word of Norwegian. My first teacher at the secondary school was a nice woman in her forties, wearing her glasses, she had a friendly soft tone. As I had some basic knowledge of English, every new Norwegian word was translated into English so I could get the meaning of it before start learning the Norwegian spelling and pronunciation. I remember I struggled quite a bit to get the right “R” sound in Norwegian, my teacher placed a pencil on my tongue, intending to give me some external help. It did help a bit until we both could not help laughing at her creativity. A few months later, when my Norwegian had reached a certain level, I was transferred to an ordinary class.
Because of my limited knowledge of the language, it was hard for me to follow the lessons as they were all taught in Norwegian. However, there was one thing that had helped me to maintain some confidence. Referring back to the title, you get the clue? Yes, I was exceptionally good at maths. I managed to solve complicated mathematical problems and displayed greater maths skills compared to other students in the class. My maths skills were no better than average when I studied at the secondary school in Shanghai, but how could I become one of the best in the class in Norway?
In Shanghai, students are better at maths than anywhere else in the world. According to the OECD´s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Shanghai maths students are three years ahead of the PISA average. In addition, 55% of students are considered “top performers”. What is the success formula behind this outstanding achievement?
BBC news has tackled the issue and made a programme called – Shanghai: A Model for Teaching Maths. The Shanghai “mastery” approach to teaching maths assumes that every pupil has the potential to 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. As a result, the foundations are laid for a solid mathematical understanding.
The life of a teacher in a Shanghai primary school is quite different compared to teachers in most other countries. The system works like this, each teacher specialises in a particular subject – if you teach maths, you teach only maths.
These specialised teachers are given at least five years of training targeted at specific age groups, during this period of time, they gain a deep understanding both in terms of their subject and the way how children of a certain age acquire knowledge.
There are also other differences. School days are longer in China compared to many other countries, usually from 07.00 until 16.00 or 17.00. Class sizes are larger, and lessons are shorter – each is 35 minutes long, followed by 15 minutes of unstructured play. There is a huge amount of homework. Pupils and students often spend hours on homework and extra tuition after school. But is it good for children´s wellbeing and mental developement? A Stanford researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance and even alienation from society. The survey data indicates that spending too much time on homework meant that students were “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills”.
So, should all countries use the Shanghai maths method? The teaching programme which involves extensive training for the teachers and specialisation in a particular subject is inspiring. On the other hand, is it necessary for every child to be a maths master? Are drawing and painting skills of less worth than maths skills?