Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Learning From the Chinese

Back to the Future

When we attended undergrad school we were told that Economics was the dismal science.  Nowadays, this place of notoriety has been taken by an even more dismal science--mathematics.  Thousands of school children are "graduating" from state schools unable to perform even the most basic calculations.  They are functionally innumerate.  

Could this have something to do with how maths is taught?  Well, yes.  Possibly.  The grandparents of our current generation of school pupils left (even rudimentary) schooling knowing how to add, subtract, divide, and multiply.  But now we are more clever than ever.  State schools in New Zealand have adopted an entirely different approach to teaching maths.  The current approach is attuned to the more enlightened age in which we live.  It has students being exposed to mathematical theory from the outset.

"Modern" maths pedagogy centres around problems drawn from real life (to prevent maths being abstract from the get go).
"Mother (er, sorry, the current female caregiver) called all the children to the table (er, correction, to sit on the floor with their electronic devices) and began to hand out the evening's food.  There are five children in the family.  Only three were sitting down with their i-pads, gaming furiously.  How many children were missing?"
But then it goes on to expose the pupils to various methods and ways to solve this problem, each employing different theoretical approaches to get the correct answer.  How sophisticated is that.  From day one, pupils are being prepared for algebraic abstractions.

In reality, most pupils are being prepared for a life condemned to mathematical ignorance.  In reaction to this high brow nonsense, we now hear of a schooling revolution taking place in the UK.

A controversial government experiment introducing Chinese-style maths lessons in English schools looks set to expand after being hailed by a minister as one of the most successful things the Department for Education has done.  Schools minister Nick Gibb, who is hoping to fly out to Shanghai in February to learn more about Chinese teaching methods, described the results of the pioneering experiment as incredible, with less-able children faring particularly well.

A group of secondary school teachers from a selection of English schools is preparing to travel to Shanghai next month, following an earlier visit by primary school teachers who watched Chinese teachers in action.  “When that’s brought to England and the approach has been tried in English schools, it’s been hugely successful,” said Gibb. “Teachers have been pleasantly surprised by how much some of the less-able children are achieving in maths as a consequence of this approach.”

Shanghai teachers use a whole-class, “mastery” approach, which involves teaching children of all ability every minute step of a calculation. Thirty Chinese teachers have also been flown to the UK to demonstrate their technique in English primary school classrooms.  The minister described seeing a Chinese teacher in a Harris academy devote an entire lesson to how to multiply two double digit figures ending in zero. “I walked around the classroom and all the children were understanding what was happening and could perform the calculation,” he said. [The Guardian]
About forty years ago the "experts" gracing our "Teacher Colleges" insisted that maths must be taught with understanding.  Without understanding (comprehension of number theory) maths would be superficial and artificial.  This stupendous devolution has consigned at least two generations of school pupils to relative, and in some cases, complete innumeracy.   In the UK it appears that the folly is being redressed.

It has been so successful that the pilot programme is being expanded.
Thousands of primary schools in England will copy the east Asian style of teaching maths, the Department for Education has said.  A £41m boost will help more than 8,000 schools – half the total number in England – receive support to adopt the approach, which is used by leading maths performers including Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong.

International tests show that in these cities the percentage of 15-year-olds who are functionally innumerate – unable to perform basic calculations – was more than 10 percentage points lower than in England.  The Asian maths approach is already used in a number of England’s schools following a teacher exchange programme between England and Shanghai.  The funding will ensure it is used more widely, with an initial 700 teachers to be trained to support schools in maths mastery.

Initially used in England in 2014, maths mastery involves children being taught as a whole class, building depth of understanding of the structure of maths, and is supported by the use of high-quality textbooks.  Schools minister Nick Gibb, who visited Shanghai in March to see maths teaching in practice, will announce the expansion on Tuesday in a speech at the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education conference.

Gibb said: “We are seeing a renaissance in maths teaching in this country, with good ideas from around the world helping to enliven our classrooms.  “The significant expansion of the south Asian maths mastery approach can only add to the positive momentum, with thousands more young people having access to specialist teachers and quality textbooks.

“I am confident that the steps we are taking now will ensure young people are properly prepared for further study and the 21st-century workplace, and that the too often heard phrase ‘can’t do maths’ is consigned to the past.”  [The Guardian]
We wonder how long it will be before New Zealand pedagogues, educrats and educational unions follow the UK, and go back to the future.   Ah, but dear readers, remember this.  These developments in the UK are being rammed down schools by Tories, by right wingers.  They are a secret plot to undermine the equality of failure which has been so prodigiously achieved in our country.  Not for us, here in enlightened New Zealand.  Sure, our schools are failing in maths teaching.  But our failure is common across the socio-economic spectrum.  It is consequently not just elegant.  It is just and noble.

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