Asian style ‘Mastery Mathematics’ Method to be Introduced in Thousands of English Primary Schools

The Department of Education announced on 12th July that over the next 4 years, more than half of all primary schools in England would be adopting a South Asian method of teaching mathematics to pupils. The approach is known as the “Shanghai” or “Mastery” method of mathematics. It involves a traditional whole-class learning system in which every student in the class must demonstrate a thorough understanding of a topic before the next is introduced.

The method is traditionally Chinese and is currently used in several South Asian countries where mathematics scores are consistently higher than Britain. The more than 8,000 English primary schools that will be adopting this approach will receive a total of £41 million in funding to purchase textbooks and train teachers to specialise in the Mastery method.

What exactly does the method entail?

The critical aspects of the Shanghai (Mastery) Method are its rigidity, rigorousness, and total class-based approach. Unlike most lessons in the UK, where pupils sit in clusters around tables, each child sits at their desk facing their teacher- a format well-known to those who went to school more than twenty years ago.[1]

Similarly, the Shanghai Method treats the class as a unit- all pupils learn from the same page of the same textbook simultaneously, and the intention is that each child must be able to show ‘mastery’ of the topic before the class can move on.[2]

This is in contrast to our recent approach to teaching in the UK, dividing classes by ability, with more able pupils allowed to move on more quickly or even be set entirely different work than others in their class.

Classroom time becomes more highly regimented and more consistent under the system. The teacher asks a question, a child answers, and the rest of the class repeats. If the answer was correct, children clap (a sort of round of applause) before writing the answer in their textbooks.[3]

The process seems close to the idea of learning by rote, and the NCETM (National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics) point out that the concept of mastery, the idea behind the method, is most certainly nothing new.

What is prompting this change?

The move seems to have been fairly carefully thought out: schools minister Nick Gibb visited schools around the Shanghai area in March to see the method in practice.[4] Gibb and his predecessor in the position Liz Truss have been encouraging the transfer of teachers between Shanghai and England as a pilot scheme before the official introduction of any major policy.[5]

Gibb explained to a conference of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education that while he believes the UK is already going through a ‘renaissance in maths teaching’, introducing this method would provide ‘positive momentum’ to this improvement.[6]

It is undeniable that the method has achieved great results where it is used; Shanghai leads the entire world in mathematics (among other subjects) according to PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment.[7]

Pupils in Singapore, Japan, China and South Korea – countries that use the Shanghai method – are roughly three years ahead of English children in mathematical capabilities. By the time they are 15, students in the UK are studying for their mathematics GCSE, whilst their peers in countries that practise the Mastery method are studying at a level equivalent to second-year A-levels. [8]

It certainly seems, therefore, that introducing the Mastery method will be a step forward for England. Many schools in the country have already begun to implement this method[9], with around 140 teachers in England already trained in the approach.

Initial results, published in a three-year-long study conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation, show that pupils following the Mathematics Mastery programme have made significantly more progress than pupils being taught using the usual English method[10].

In fact, the English primary school, which currently boasts the highest results in Key Stage 1 mathematics, Ark Conway Primary Academy in London, follows the Mastery approach[11]. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that introducing the method on a much larger scale will positively change our schoolchildren and mark the beginning of a new era of mathematics teaching in England.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that the change will also prove to be financially beneficial; the Shanghai method has a lower per-pupil cost than traditional English teaching methods because it utilises only textbooks to aid the students’ learning, without the need for high-end teaching aids and props.

The fact that this method results not only in improved test scores but also saves money makes its implementation a no-brainer.

Reaction to the new method

While the public has yet to react overly to the new policy, experts have raised particular concerns about the method. A criticism in the Daily Mail was that this could be yet another version of ‘teaching to the test’, a common concern with modern teaching.[12]

However, while it remains to be seen how successful the method would be in teaching British pupils to apply maths in real-life situations, not just exams, the dearth of qualified British graduates in maths-related subjects compared to the surplus of Chinese and other Asian graduates indeed suggests the method’s success.

In the same article, it was also fairly pointed out that the method may not be the sole reason for the success of Asian schools; James Bowen, a director for a schools union, has instead highlighted the ‘respect’ with which both pupils and schools hold teachers, as well as the time given for teachers to prepare for lessons.[13]

Chinese teachers will more often than not have spent more time at university – up to five years in total – specifically studying the teaching of maths at primary level, and when in a position to teach, will teach nothing but maths. Our teachers, by comparison, will spend little more than two weeks studying the teaching of primary maths, and of course, will need to teach several other subjects besides.

However, it is hoped that these deficiencies can be largely overcome by the £41 million in funding provided to schools adopting the Shanghai method, which will allow teachers to be comprehensively trained in the approach and bring them up to speed. Schools Minister Nick Gibb is confident that the mass introduction of the Mastery approach in the UK will be overwhelmingly positive and that soon “the too-often-heard phrase ‘can’t do maths’ [will be] consigned to the past”.