How China teaches children maths so well

China’s maths stars. How Hwee Young/EPA

There has been much publicity in recent years about China and its teachers. After the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were published in 2013, considerable discussion has focused on the reasons why Chinese students’ test results are more than 100 points above the PISA average.

Despite some controversy over the results in Shanghai, it is still not clear why China has done so well. We have been undertaking a small-scale study to look at possible explanations. We recently presented our initial findings at the British Educational Research Association conference.

Nanjing’s high fliers

First, we tested 562 nine and ten year-olds in classrooms in Southampton in England and Nanjing in China, cities that are of medium to high socioeconomic status among major cities in each country. The Chinese pupils scored 83% in the first of two tests, compared to 56% among the English children. The test used was the same used in the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

In a second test, given to the pupils ten weeks later, the English pupils improved to score 66% on average, but this was still well short of the figure for the Chinese children of 87%.

We also used video analysis of what was going on in lessons in both countries’ classrooms to investigate the types of teaching being used. We found that in the Chinese classrooms whole-class interactive teaching was being used 72% of the time, compared to only 24% in England. By contrast, the classes in England spent nearly half – 47% – of their time in individual or group work, compared to 28% in China.

It could be of course that it is cultural factors in China which explain the high test scores. But if you pool all the English classes and the Chinese classes, and then analyse the data across both countries, those lessons with a lot of whole-class interaction were associated with higher test scores, while those with a high proportion of individual and group work were associated with lower scores.

Whole class learning together

Our findings are in line with decades of research which has concluded that whole-class interactive teaching with the teacher exploring pupils’ knowledge through questioning and demonstration is more effective than seat work where children work through exercises themselves.

The importance of this whole-class interactive teaching is probably particularly marked in mathematics, because of the hierarchical nature of the subject. If children work on their own, they may become stuck and have to wait a considerable time for the teacher to provide the knowledge that they need.

In the whole-class setting, using techniques such as number cards, where the whole class are asked to hold up a card with the answer to a mathematical sum, can help teachers to identify immediately which pupils need help. This could be provided to both them and the whole class quickly and effectively without delay.

English focus on individual child

Given the fact that existing research and our new findings point in the same direction, it does seem rather surprising that about half the pupil experience in English maths lessons in our study is still individual or group work. This figure does still seem remarkably high.

What are the reasons for it? Many primary teachers have rather low levels of mathematical subject knowledge and confidence. Given this, it is not surprising that they prefer the burden of learning to be placed in the hands of pupils rather than having it in their own.

It may be that English teachers are wedded to a focus on an individual child rather than the whole class. Whatever the reason, it does seem rather unlikely that – to adapt the Chinese proverb – children will learn when the teachers don’t teach.