Schools should learn from Shanghai

Britain should stop making excuses for education standards falling behind China’s and introduce its teaching methods here, according to Liz Truss, Coalition Education Minister.

The Education Minister visited schools in Shanghai after they were singled out as the most successful in the world by the influential Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Its students came first in reading, maths and science tests, while the UK trailed in 26th place, the Telegraph reports.

Speaking during her visit, Miss Truss said that Chinese teachers are “more effective” than their British counterparts and that excuses shouldn’t be made for falling behind Shanghai’s performance. She claimed that schools in Britain are stagnating and wants the ‘Shanghai method’ introduced to improve pupil performance. “What we see is very effective teaching methodology going on and that is what we are interested in learning about while we are over here, because it seems that the Shanghai teaching methodology uses resources much more effectively and also focuses on the core arithmetic that children need to have from an early age,” she said.

Harvard University has questioned the OECD’s results, claiming that they are skewed because children of migrants in Shanghai have to attend schools in their home provinces. However, Miss Truss warned against accepting this as an explanation for China’s performance: “We shouldn’t kid ourselves that there is somehow an explanation for that very high performance that isn’t about what’s going on in those schools – because I have seen it for myself, I have seen the very high quality teaching that is taking place.”

The Education Minister wants teachers to follow the example of their German and Polish peers who have incorporated methods from schools in the East into their lessons; fifty UK maths teachers have already been to Shanghai to study teaching methods there and have seen standards improve in their own classrooms as a result.

What do you think of Liz Truss’s comments? Could UK schools learn from Shanghai or are its results skewed, as Harvard University suggests?

40 thoughts on “Schools should learn from Shanghai

  1. Clearly the minister has not noticed the concerns about suicide rates amongst Shanghai children. I remember the discussions hitting the headlines some time ago. A brief google search is enough to show that it is still a concern.
    This is not a route to a happy productive society where every child grows up to make a positive contribution.

  2. Surely even Miss Truss is aware that there is a great cultural divide between the UK and China. There is a lot of great teaching in our schools so why not concentrate upon sharing what we do well to raise standards. Please stop treating our children as guinea pigs and changing teaching styles and expectations do often. Ministers must make sure they think carefully before making constant changes to our education system.

  3. Unless one has the detail of the method and its rational, it would be impossible to comment whether or not it would be good for students in the UK to follow. Chasing the tail of the dragon because it may soon be the most economically dominant nation in the world in not a good reason to follow – especially on the basis of global politics. There must be sound and proven reasons for following any innovation – if innovation it really, is that fits in with our cultural norms of society, and regardless of social, economic and/or ethnic backgrounds. My question would be, why are we not innovating here in the UK? After-all we’ve long held that British innovation is our national strength.

  4. Has anyone noticed that China’s situation is different from the UK’s? We are suffering as a nation from an advanced syndrome of child discouragement over several generations. There is no mainstream school I’ve taught in during a career spanning primary and secondary over almost forty years where I haven’t heard negative judgmental comments from other staff: “X is a waste of time.” “Y will never come to anything.” Or, worse still, directly to the student: “You’re a waste of my time!” “Who do you think you are?” “You’ll never be anything!” Disliking their teachers is a primary reason for most children disliking certain subjects and, consequently, underperforming.

    With the exception of a few individuals who rise above the negative prophesy of their future, low expectations of this kind are guaranteed to produced low results across the board. The UK’s poor showing can be turned on its head without any improvement in the way subjects are taught, so long as the delivery is achieved with kindness and encouragement. Much problematic behaviour will evaporate at the same time. This is what I’ve found in my classrooms while consistently ignoring every school’s disciplinary procedures. Significantly, teachers will find themselves teaching from a position of service to the children’s learning, as opposed to a position of arrogance and always knowing best – and the way they teach will improve by default.

    In my experience, even most high-achieving pupils/students under-achieve when compared to their true potential, but the greatest tragedy is the large majority, locked into mediocrity by requirement to comply with “standards”. An educational experience offering excitement and celebrating discovery, giving to all in the school community the opportunity to excel, is the only way to put the UK at top through reversing the generational degeneration.

  5. Liz Truss is completely deluded. I have no doubt that the teaching methods in China are effective however this wouldn’t work in the UK because one major difference is that the children in China have been raised with a better work ethic than many UK children and that they appreciate the importance of education to improve their future. Some children in the UK are lazy and believe that it is right to rely on the benefits system – a lesson they have learnt from their own, work-shy families. For attainment to improve in the UK this “safety net” needs to be removed and then children would work harder and attain better results.

  6. I worked in China in the 1990s in quite a remote (and poor) area. What was quite striking was the Chinese people’s ability to work with numbers. Their memories for numbers and ability to perform mental arithmetic was (in general) much better than the average western person. Which has led me to conclude that the brains of Asian people are better suited to logical, numbers based activities. Go to any large organisation and look at the make up of the Finance and IT depts. – there is always a higher percentage of Asian people here than in other depts.

    The education system, I’m sure, is part of the story but innate ability is also an important factor.

  7. China has a very different culture to the UK. Lifting a methodology wholesale and transplanting it into a foreign body (in this case, the UK) will not really achieve much. The way a person thinks is formed from birth. The way Chinese children are brought up is to succeed, because finances, health and future opportunities are built upon success. UK children are brought up very differently. Love here is shown in very different ways. The refrain most heard is, “I don’t care what they do as long as they are happy.” In China, a parent is probably more likely to say, “I want them to be a doctor / politician / solicitor…” The grammar schools here are stuffed with children from non UK backgrounds because parents from other cultures see education and success as very important. British parents tend not to, to see teachers as the enemy, to think comfort and happiness are more important. There are pros and cons to both views / cultures and a happy medium would be best. A happy medium is going to take generations to achieve, and the way to start it is NOT blindly copying another culture’s teaching system, which won’t achieve the same results outside its own culture. Life in China is tough. In the UK it is easier, which is why there isn’t the same parental push to achieve. I agree with the previous comment that teachers need to teach. I think the UK should not focus on league tables and trying to get pupils to a C, but focus on individuals. The public, especially the media, should look at the value added of schools. This is unpopular with politicians and the media because it is much harder to make sweeping generalisations and apportion blame when you are dealing with individuals.

  8. We need to be careful here, perhaps, that we might be looking too singularly when we are comparing two very differing cultures.
    How are teachers valued and remunerated in Shanghai compared to the UK? How many of them leave the profession disillusioned and/or ill from stress? Have they the luxury of teaching in an almost robotically cooperative classroom environment where discipline problems would never reduce their role, as it can in the worst UK cases, to a nerve-racking containment exercise?
    Considering also the pupils: what is the attitude to the wider curriculum outside of the core subjects? How fares the “creative” child (does the Japanese saying, “nails that stick out will be hammered in” hold any sway here also)? Finally, and most importantly perhaps, thinking again of Japan’s record (imagining – though I might be wrong to do so – that Its culture might be more accurately compared to Shanghai’s than can the UK’s), how prevalent are student bullying and suicide?
    I claim no expertise. Certainly I have more questions than answers, strongly suspecting that “easy” answers can be abusively unconstructive in this sensitive, strongly threatened, criticised, undervalued, bureaucratically straitened and trammelled, perhaps even in a real sense depressed, profession. Sadly, facile, headline-grabbing “solution” statements are of course the cheap stock-in-trade of politicians; describing our educators’ efforts indiscriminately as “stagnating” is in my opinion unhelpful, if not downright irresponsible.

  9. It may better if we adopt the Chinese political system in the UK as their politicians are much more effective.
    The OECD are of course such an authority on education that their methods are unquestionably accurate and the ‘league’ table mentality is such a great motivational force for success…generally speaking of course!

    Collectivism and Capitalism rule, UK!

    There was a good report by Robert Peston this week which gave much more insight into the Chinese economy than this soon to be forgotten coalition MP has come up with.

  10. Do what China – or more accurately Shanghai – does and select the highest achieving students, teach them to answer the questions then send in the results to be published by the OECD.

  11. As someone who was told to my face (and to the class) that I was “Too stupid to bother teaching” while in Primary School in Australia (and too the whole class once in Malawi)and also a teacher who has heard much the same language used by teachers in this country though mostly in the staffroom. I agree with the below entirely.

  12. So Gove will now ask us to ditch the calculators and learn to use the abacus? Has he been over to visit as I haven’t been told I am doing it all wrong by him recently. If we continue to use child centred approaches and educate student teachers in understanding how the number system and maths fits together, then this wold be a step forwards. Roll on 50 to a class, this really does seem like progress – lol

  13. Where do these ministers come from? Where they should be is China on a one way ticket ………OR – in China they jail bent politicians and if needs be shoot them NOW that is worth importing into the UK!
    With every successive government we have ministers who are more and more removed from reality …………. Gove is the prime example of the evolutionary process of political stupidity – god help the children!

  14. There is little imperative for UK school-goers to strive for excellence. A soft-padded welfare system encourages an entitlement culture. Why work when someone else will do all the work and I can sit on my backside raking in taxpayers’ money? UK teachers are too soft on the kids, who rule the roost in the classroom. Parents will support their brat kids long before they side with the teacher who reprimands that brat.

    In China, there is no ready access to wealth through welfare. If you don’t work hard, you’ll get left behind. Also, Chinese children are seeing the benefits of paying attention, doing well and striving for excellence.

    In 20 years from now, GB will be the equivalent of a 3rd world country – something the Chinese have already said about us. Our bratty kids (and their equally bratty parents) seem to want that for themselves.

  15. And Chinese children are highly stressed robots! Do we want our children to have happy childhoods or become robots? It would be interesting to read any research on what Chinese adults think about their childhoods and the kind of person they have been made into.

  16. I’ve taught our English and American ‘brats ‘and I’ve taught a lot of foreign kids ! The difference is cultural . the foreign kids ( Asian, European, Latin American, African…etc) are respectful of authority and value the opportunity to learn. Discipline issues are at a minimum and the parents are grateful for your efforts and are keen to be helpful ,

    No amount of fiddling with the curriculum and methodologies will make much difference if the prevailing attitudes dismiss education as an imposition and not an opportunity!
    When did all this frivolous attitude to education begin ? Is it another American import ? Are we too decadent in our bloated market consumption society to be concerned ?
    Ticking boxes is a waste of time …someone please tell the politicians !

  17. This education minister has no idea what it is really like in China. She should be looking at what is really happening in the UK and not compare the UK with China. Here in China the culture is completely different. Schools and students are only concerned about results. In most schools you can see students in classes till 9:00 pm and they start at 7:30 am. They have very little social life. When asked what they will be doing over their holidays the reply is “home work”. It is not uncommon to see children at school over the weekend. I can continue as there a lot more to add. The main actual difference in learning is that here they concentrate on repetitive rote learning. Anyone who says that the methodology here is better has no understanding of teaching and learning. I am a UK qualified teacher and have worked in China for 5 years.

  18. My friend was one of those fifty teachers. He certainly found it interesting and felt there were useful techniques that could be incorporated. However he also felt that culturally it was difficult to compare the two systems. It is very simplistic, and typical of our sound bite politicians, to blithely assume that we can transplant the Chinese system into UK schools. I agree that until our children are taught to value and respect education thus will be tough. I also find the suggestion that the fifty teacher’s have seen standards improve as a result of going to China interesting. I failed to see the magic wands they were handing out!

  19. Im not soft on kids. Im a teacher and im fed up of all these put down comments off people on here. Im also fed up of the government changing the goal posts every two mins. Please make your mind up so i can concentrate on educating children. Ps i have to encourage the children to have a good view of their abilities and talents.
    Get a grip i say……….

  20. I currently work in an international school, with teachers who have worked in Shanghai who find the Education Ministers comments facile.

    I agree with the above comments of the other teachers. 7 years ago I went on a British Council tour to Beijing and observed maths lessons. Didactic teaching to classes of 40. Even if we wanted thIs would not work in the UK. Why? Because the cultural and social systems are so different e.g. one child families, maths is a highly desirable qualification, parents support teachers, no discipline issues. It is not comparing like with like. In “addition” to use the experience of German and Polish schools is to repeat the false comparison.

  21. Standards in UK schools will always all behind other countries who have to pay to educate their children. If you have to pay, or your parents have to pay for you, their is an incentive to learn, to achieve and if you don’t you loose your place to another child, who’s family want the best for them.

    In the Netherlands, all families have to contribute an additional payment upfront to their child’s education, what they pay depends upon income levels, as well as indirectly through taxes.

    Also under performing children are ‘kept back’ in school, until they reach the same levels as their peers. This is normal and no stigma is attached to being kept back, but because the parents have to pay, again they can assert some pressure on their child to achieve their targets, whilst the parents are still paying. I know this works because it happened to my x husband when he was at school and to his niece more recently.

    The niece was not a high achiever, but she needed a certain level of education to get into a career in nursing. She was kept back twice, her parents were not wealthy and they paid their contribution. She has benefited from this system and is now working in her chosen profession.

    Dutch children are not spoon fed information, just to pass exams. The system emphasizes much self learning and self development. The students get the basics in class, and then are expected to work extra hard at home and complete their maths problems, for instance.
    They go back to school, work is corrected, they are taught the next stage, and then again have to go away and work hard on the next set of problems, in their own time.

    Their timetables are flexible, the school days can be short, as the students need time at home to study. This produces a very grown up attitude to learning and self study. They also have use of the school’s facilities, library, IT, if that is not available at home.
    This places the focus back on the student, the teacher teaches, the student uses this information and completes the set tasks, and some will work harder and do more than others.

    From what I know from friends teaching in Thailand, where education is not free, neither is there a Welfare State, there is much pride when a family can afford to send their child to a good school. Class sizes are large, but it is the attitude of the students, that sets them apart. They want to learn, as a good education leads to a better life.
    Behavioual problems in the classroom are rare.

    Until attitudes change and students become self motivated to learn, the UK will always be behind in the league tables.

  22. I was recently seen by Ofsted who said my lesson was outstanding. I want out of teaching. I’m not he only one.
    Teachers in this country are not valued, we can never win, everything we do is wrong, if we do anything right the goals are moved so then we look like we are doing it wrong. Too many people who have never taught and do not understand the profession or what British teenagers in this day and age are like think that they have al of the answers and get to make crazy decisions. I have taught for ten years and seen it change dramatically and sadly not for the good. I love teaching but loathe being a teacher. Never in my career have I heard so many teachers, some of them amazing teachers, say that they want to leave the job.
    Just leave us alone and let us TEACH!

  23. PLEASE just let us teach and stop all the experiments! A good teacher knows the students and will convey and communicate effectively. keep changing the rules and this cannot happen as both become confused!!!

  24. PLEASE just let us teach and stop all the experiments! A good teacher knows the students and will convey and communicate effectively. keep changing the rules and this cannot happen as both become confused!!!

  25. I am currently teaching in Shanghai and have taught in India before, as well as the USA. There is some small truth that in China, with its thousand-plus-year history of government exams leading to civil service positions, there is a generally high level of respect for education and for those who labor therein. There is also on the other side of the coin two things: 1) the curriculum is very narrowly focused on the things the [PISA] test examines (the historical government exams were also somewhat narrow in scope: i.e., expound upon the analects of Confucius and all the prior commentary thereon, and not much else), and 2) the Shanghai schools at which the test is administered are selected and the students going to those schools are also pre-selected. So, of course, the results are quite nice, thank you. If all students in China were to take the exam the result would be disastrous as schools in the vast hinterlands cannot possibly keep up with the hand-picked students going to elite public schools in China’s most economically vibrant city (population 22 million+). We are comparing apples and oranges in so many ways, including the ways described by previous comment writers above. This is not to say that the education “industries” in the USA and the UK don’t have their challenges. They most certainly do. I have taught “bratty” and do-nothing students and it’s not fun.

  26. I am a teacher working in an international school in northern China. I speak to Chinese mums and dads on a regular basis about the pressure that their children are under in local schools to pass exams and to be honest with you it is shocking! Parents and students are trapped in a system which takes ‘teaching to the test’ to a whole other level (not to mention endemic corruption which forces parents to given money or other bribes to teachers). Children study all hours to get into the ‘best’ middle school and the ‘best’ high school and then onto the ‘best’ university to the detriment of their childhood, health and happiness. If what I hear in China, was happening in the UK the parents would be called into speak to the head and in worse cases local child protection services would be called. The Chinese students that I have taught who have left local school often lack creativity, the ability to think and work independently and have an extremely unhealthy attitude towards a study – life balance, often working all night and then coming in late or ending up sick after a run of all-nighters. I can not believe that the UK is looking at Chinese schools for inspiration! Wake up Truss – listen and trust the teachers in the UK – it is the only way for an improved education system.

  27. I think that before we start debating this, someone should first explain to us WHAT THE SHANGHAI METHOD IS? I’ve googled it and it doesn’t seem to exist. So I looked on you tube, no help either until I searched for “Chinese teaching Methods” and came across a classroom of 5 pupils with 5 teaching assistants and one teacher, where nothing is written down, the children instead scream the answers at the top of their lungs. Is this what Liz means? Is this the method they would like us to employ?

    Lots of love from Confused Cath

  28. Grahame Palmer you undermine your point re: teachers too soft …………… as you appear to realise ‘brat parents’ support their ‘brat kids’ …………..teachers have no power. Try getting tough and the first complaint from a parent will see you blamed by SLT …….

    Sadly China may well be right about the UK in the future ……

  29. Check the performance stats here in Britain. The Chinese kids in this country are at the top. It is about a culture of hard work like Grahame has pointed out. I have taught and I am still teaching these children from China and their performance is incredible despite their language limitations. Chinese parents are 100% involved with their children’s daily. Students in my classes whose parents are more involved in their learning tend to perform better than others of similar ability level. I don’t believe its a question of ‘cosmic’ teaching methods employed by the Chinese teachers that breed ultra performance because I believe we have it here in Britain, in fact I would like to think (judging by what we do at my school) that we employ some of the best teaching strategies across a range of subjects we teach.

  30. I was one of the 50 teachers to travel to China in January. Although we visited schools in Shanghai, we saw no pupils or teaching, until we travelled to Ningbo, 5 hours away.
    I strongly disagree with the content of this article as despite plans to introduce some of the strategies and structures we saw in Ningbo, these are only in their early planning stages and I fail to see how a statement can be made that teachers “have seen standards improve in their own classrooms as a result.”
    There are without doubt things we can learn from the Chinese, however there is much that UK teachers do better. We saw no differentiation, guided grouping and Chinese teachers agreed they admire our provision for SEN, use of additional adult support, use of display and the learning environment.
    Chinese teachers teach their specialist subject only (even down as far as kindergarten) and are educated to degree level within this. They also teach a maximum of 75% of the timetable. Strong support is given to for teacher professional development. Parental support is expected and plays a key part in a child’s education – indeed the deep cultural differences are extremely important in comparing UK and Chinese education.
    In conclusion I would suggest a meeting of minds. When Western pedagogical teaching can combine with Chinese structures we may find an efficient teaching approach. This article tells only part of the story.

  31. @ George

    Mar 2, 2014 at 3:17 am

    I think we might all be intrigued as to the specific ‘methodology’ Ms Truss may be referring. What exactly is this magic she talks of?

    I am also interested in how many settings she has personally witnessed this ‘Shanghai Teaching Methodology’. It must be a significant number for her to be sooo impressed!

  32. How can the minister make such unrealistic comments when it is clear that we are not measuring like with like across the two continents. Parents in far eastern countries are supportive of their child’s education, the completing of homework and work in co-operation with the teacher. The opposite is true for a number of tough schools in the U.K., where education seems to take second place to a cheap holiday or a long weekend away! The Government and local education authorities also work in co-operation with the teachers and are not knocking them at the slightest opportunity to do so.

  33. I see ‘Polemical Palmer’ is spouting his anti intellectual generalisations and meanderings again…I bet he spewed out the same words of wisdom 20 years ago and will no doubt do so again in another 20 years…a rather ‘bratty poster’ who thinks the yellow rose garden of China is blooming marvellous.
    His opinions are obviously tainted by a personal experience which has had a profound effect on his systemic prejudice. I have worked with children and parents in GB/UK who want to do their best and support their school as I am sure all teachers have. It’s all part of lifes rich tapestry which I much prefer to single issue boiler suits!
    As a parent I resent such sweeping generalisations which are obviously well informed through reading the Daily Mail. I find that ‘brattyness’ extends to all levels of society, not just those who are ‘welfare dependent’ – in fact the ‘comfortably numb’ strand of our financially secure citizens are some of the worst ‘brats’…generally speaking of course!! (Me included!)

  34. I too have been fortunate enough to witness teaching in Chinese classrooms (not in the hot-bed region of Shanghai) and it is clear that the UK and Chinese systems have much to learn from each other. We could certainly benefit enormously from the higher degrees of rigour and formality that large classes (50+) require as the norm but Chinese Science lessons are not able to support very much practical work with so many pupils in a set. We must not only hang on to this great asset but progress it further: exposure to practical science identifies and develops vital skills in our children which keep us ahead of the pack in so many ways. Of course the cultures are very different and these differences inevitably must be taken into account – one size does not fit all in Education. And let us not forget the IT revolution that is transforming methodologies as well – again, both systems should learn from each other’s positive experiences.

  35. Standards in education in this will not improve until:

    1. The press and politicians stop rubbishing teachers.

    In other countries teachers are respected and looked up to. Here I am always nervous of telling people what I do for a living. The reactions range from a barely detectable sneer to outright hostility.

    2. Government turns the tables on teachers and says “Things are not good enough. After decades of us telling you what to do we would like your opinion and advice.”

    We seek lawyers advice on the law; financial advice from accountants and medical advice from health professionals.

  36. (Sorry – previous post went up before I reviewed and finished it.)

    So to finish….

    We seek lawyers’ advice on the law; financial advice from accountants and medical advice from health professionals.

    The never ask teachers for advice on education – it never happens. Why do we train people to be teachers when in actual fact all that is expected of them is to follow instructions from people who do not actually teach?

  37. Sad politicians like Liz Truss and the apauling attitude of the press are the reason for ‘failing’ British schools, alongside the breed of Business Head (remember the fast tracking of failed bankers, poor dears, just the sort we need to run a school) whose methods and tyrany have trickled down the management pole and created a thoroughly miserable working environment for most innovative and intelligent teachers. It’s no wonder that parents have little respect for teachers. Teachers are protected and defended by no one. Even unions compete with other.

    How many of the non-teaching population of the UK have any idea how many times the curriculum has been changed and how many ‘new innovations’ have been introduced then replaced by a different innovation over the past 30 years by ‘Education’ Ministers who have absolutely no teaching qualification at all? Teachers have had no say in this decline. Any protest or stike attempt is damned by the press and teachers are immediately reviled by the public- and sometimes by colleagues, well, we all have a mortage to pay..

    I loved teaching, always have but the red atpe and loonacy was driving me mad. I now teach in Iraq with amazing colleagues (average age 45) no OFSTED, not a British politician in sight, freedom to learn from each other in an inquiring and constructive way, small class sizes, no rote teaching, excellent parental relationships, no bitching, no competetiveness, no stress! Hurrah! Come and see us Liz, you freeloader. This is the way to do it AND produce kids who love to come to school in a culture that traditionally doesn’t need to value education (especially for girls) because the system works on who you know and not your training. Alternatively, Liz, go and live in Shanghi. Please.

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