Asian Mathematics spreads West

EAST Asian countries are expected to dominate the upcoming PISA Mathematics Rankings, which are due for release on Dec 6, in the same way they did in 2012, when China came 1st, Singapore 2nd, Hong Kong 3rd, Taiwan 4th, South Korea 5th and Japan 7th.

This dominance by China, Singapore and Japan has attracted the attention of British and American educators and policy makers, who are hoping to improve their students’ Mathematics abilities, and subsequently raise their PISA ranking.

In England, the Conservative government has been so determined to emulate China’s success in Mathematics international assessments such as PISA, that £41 million (US$50.8 million) has been invested to enable 8,000 primary schools in England (half the country’s schools) to adopt the Shanghai Mastery Approach for teaching Mathematics.

Policy makers are hoping that the widespread adoption of the Mastery Approach will boost learner achievement and raise students’ Mathematics abilities closer to those of learners in Shanghai, where 15 year olds are often three years ahead.

In recent years, Mathematics standards in North America’s schools have also been disappointing, with 34 percent of Grade 4 students and only 27 percent of Grade 8 students possessing adequate levels of proficiency.

In an effort to raise these standards a number of American schools have adopted the Singapore Mathematics Curriculum, which initially gained popularity with home schoolers almost 20 years ago. There are now over 2,500 schools which have adopted the Singapore Mathematics curriculum, these include state schools and exclusive private schools such as Sidwell Friends School in Washington, where Barack Obama’s daughters studied.

Image via Creativa Images / Shutterstock

The Singapore and the Shanghai Mathematics systems, bare a number of similarities, such as a commitment to fewer topics during early years education. This is done to ensure that children establish a solid foundation in numeracy by devoting more time to the study of a narrow set of core skills, covering less content but at a greater depth. Educators working in these programmes confirm that slowing down the learning process enables students to build a solid Mathematics foundation by mastering core concepts. Students are then able to move on to increasingly complex operations with greater ease and confidence.

Another similarity between these approaches is that students do not move on to more advanced operations until they have thoroughly mastered each topic, a concept which lends its name to this method, the Mastery Approach. Mathematics builds upon skills, you need multiplication to divide, division to master fractions and so on and so forth. An approach which affords individual students the necessary time and practice to master each skill before moving on to more advanced operations, has clear benefits.

SEE ALSO: Making mathematics relevant in Southeast Asia

A third factor which supports Mathematics success in East Asia and Singapore is the cultural background in which these approaches are deployed. In East Asian communities, teachers, and parents, adhere to a belief that all students can obtain a proficient level of mathematics mastery. This belief in the ability of all students, plays an important part in teaching, learning, education policy, and learner outcomes.

Furthermore, the Asian countries which have dominated the PISA Mathematics rankings in recent years have all been nations which adhere to Confucian ethics. Confucian wisdom places a highly value on education, personal development and diligence. As John Jerrim explains, these “attitudes and beliefs East Asian parents instill in their children make an important contribution to their high levels of academic achievement”.

While cultural influences make a significant contribution to learner achievement, it would be shortsighted to neglect the pedagogical methods which underlie the Singapore and Shanghai Mastery Approaches.

It’s been frequently reported that schools is Asia continue to subscribe to rote-learning and any educational success comes from students’ dedication to memorising facts and figures. While rote-learning has a long history in parts of Asia, modern schools across the continent have embraced modern, student-centered pedagogies.

The Singapore Mastery Approach has many similarities to Montessori learning. Students are engaged using aids like blocks, games, cards, charts, visual aids and visualisations, and they progress through a detailed, well structured curricula which supports kinaesthetic learning. Furthermore, the focus of the students’ investigation, is not simply finding the right answer, but rather the ability to understand how Mathematics problems are solved.

In Shanghai, the development of students’ foundation in Mathematics is supported by carefully designed exercises which encourage students to identify patterns, by using a wide variety of visual representations, number lines and fraction diagrams which support students mastery of fundamental concepts. While the classroom setup is very traditional, with students sat in neat rows, all facing the board, lessons are actually varied and engaging, with plenty of student-teacher interaction and student-student discussion.

Another factor which has contributed to the long-term success of these programmes is substantial investment in teachers and educators. Teachers in Singapore are recruited from the top third of graduates, and they receive full tuition and a salary while studying to become teachers. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education in Singapore closely monitors salaries in the private sector to ensure teaching remains an attractive and rewarding profession. Starting salaries for teachers are often higher than starting salaries for recently graduated doctors.

In Shanghai, Mathematics is taught by mathematics specialists, who have studied mathematics to an advanced level at university. New teachers start their career being mentored by ‘expert teachers’, they are observed between 20 and 30 times a year, and over the first five years they are required to complete over 200 hours of professional development. The education system in Shanghai then continues to provides Mathematics teachers with structured professional developments which teachers are required to participated in throughout their career.

The commitment and support that educational authorities provide to teachers in Singapore and Shanghai is in stark contrast to the situation in UK and the US where professional development is often sparse and teachers salaries are usually below the rates in the private sector. Western governments hoping to improve Mathematics standards could also benefit from improving teachers working conditions, as well as importing Mathematics pedagogies.


Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator.

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