Myths about Asian Mathematics

Originally published on 8th November 2016 at The 

Asian Mathematics – With the PISA 2015 Rankings due for release on 6th December, there is already much debate about which country’s education reforms will propel them up the rankings, and perhaps reward them with a spot in the Top 10. However, most commentators predict that Asian countries will continue to dominate the top of the PISA Mathematics Rankings as they did in 2012, with China coming 1st, Singapore 2nd, Hong Kong 3rd, Taiwan 4th, South Korea 5th and Japan 7th.


The continued success of China, Singapore, Korea and Japan in international Mathematics rankings, has attracted the attention of British educators and policy makers, looking to improve the UK’s ranking. The current Conservative government has been so determined to improve student performance in Mathematics assessments such as PISA, that earlier this year, £41 million was invested to enable 8,000 primary schools in England (almost half the country’s schools) to adopt a popular Asian approach to teaching Mathematics, called the Mastery Method.

The Mastery Method was introduced on a trial basis at selected schools in England during the 2014 academic year, with positive results. Policy makers now hope that the widespread adoption of the Mastery Method will improve students’ fundamental understanding of Mathematical concepts, boost learner achievement and, eventually, bring the level of maths among students in England closer to that attained by pupils in Shanghai (where 15 year-olds are often three years ahead).

Interestingly, this educational innovation has attracted a lot of attention from parents, politicians and the national press, and a number of unsubstantiated myths about Asian Mathematics have arisen, based primarily on presumptions and misinformation. This article looks at three popular myths about Asian Mathematics, and attempts to put the record straight.


Perhaps those policy makers who introduced the Mastery Method of Mathematics instruction to British schools should have got their facts straight from the beginning – or at least have brushed up on their geography skills.

In July 2016, Schools Minister Nick Gibb announced the introduction of England’s latest educational innovation – the South Asian Mastery Method from Shanghai. Before confidently informing the country’s press of this, someone really should have pointed out to the Schools Minister that Shanghai, is in China, which is East Asia, not South Asia. The region of South Asia covers, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and as far as I can gather, the Mastery Method so popular in Hong Kong and Shanghai did not herald from South Asia.


In Europe and North America there is a commonly held belief that Asian students are inherently good at Mathematics. This stereotype has been reinforced in recent years by the PISA Results, and popular culture, with the geeky Asian student a regular fixture in memescartoons and high school movies.

The reality is that Asian students are not naturally more capable mathematicians, instead, East Asian 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. As Tim Oates explains, “All children are assumed to be capable of understanding, and ideas are elaborated in different ways in order to encourage individual understanding.”

Reinforcing the belief that all pupils can become excellent mathematicians, supports student achievement and this self-belief is further reinforced by other cultural factors. Asian countries that have dominated the PISA mathematics rankings in recent years have all been East Asian nations which culturally adhere to Confucian ethics. Confucian wisdom places a highly value on education, personal development and diligence.

As John Jerrim explains, “a hard work ethic and a strong belief in the value of education is displayed by all families and instilled in every child” and it is these “attitudes and beliefs East Asian parents instill in their children make an important contribution to their high levels of academic achievement”.

It is not that Asian learners are naturally better at Mathematics, instead, cultural factors in East Asia better support students to become proficient in Mathematics.


Finally, perhaps the biggest myth about education in Asia is that the only pedagogy schools and teachers adhere to is rote-learning.

When the Department of Education announced that schools in England would be adopting a Mathematics approach from Shanghai, many critics, ‘experts’ and national publications were quick to denounce the rejection of modern teaching pedagogy and the reintroduction of 19th Century methods of learning. Mike Ellicock, from the charity National Numeracy, argued that memorizing, drilling and repetition would only prepare children to pass tests, and not help students master the fundamental concepts of mathematics or prepare then to use maths in everyday situations outside of the classroom.

While it is true that rote-learning has long been deployed in many Asian education systems, the claim that the Mastery Method relies entirely on rote-learning, is inaccurate. There is a lot more to this approach than simply memorising times tables.

A central concept in the Mastery Method is the development of a solid foundation in basic Mathematics ability, and this is established by focusing on a narrow set of core skills during the early years of education. Furthermore, students are supported in the development of each skill to the point where they have mastered the concept. When, and only when, students have mastered each concept can they able to move on to the next skill.

Mathematics builds upon skills, you need to count before you start addition, you need multiplication to divide,  you need 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.

The development of students’ foundation in Mathematics is supported by carefully designed exercises which encourage students to identify patterns. In Shanghai schools use a wide variety of visual representations to help the students make these connections. Number lines and fraction diagrams are also deployed by educators in Shanghai to support students’ mastery of fundamental concepts.

Groups of teachers from the UK visited schools in Shanghai last year to observe mathematics lessons in practice. The feedback from these teachers, indicates that while the classroom setup was very traditional, the lessons themselves were varied and engaging, with ample student-teacher interaction and student-student discussion, rather than the ‘chalk and talk’  approach typically expected in Asian schools.


The Mastery Method from East Asia (not South Asia) has the potential to significantly raise numeracy skills across the 8,000 schools which are adopting this approach. However, as with all educational innovations, the ability of those schools to successfully implement this approach will influence the impact this approach has on students in the classroom.

It will also be impossible for schools in England to adequately recreated the cultural influences that encourage studiousness among students in East Asia. To what extent this influence limits the impact of this learning model will be left to researchers and educators to determine, and it will be at least twelve months until we have any indication of how successfully this widespread adoption of Shanghai’s Mastery Method has supported Mathematics learning in the UK.


Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator.

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