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What can the Chinese learn from us?

Maths, culture and creativity

In case it has escaped your notice, the government wants Chinese teachers to show us how they teach maths.  More precisely, it's the Shanghai teachers they want us to learn from, since that's the city where some of the world's best maths results can be found.  A 16 year old from China is said to be typically two years ahead of their peer in England, which, if true, is a worrying margin in this increasingly competitive world.

I haven't had the benefit of seeing a Shanghai lesson in action, but by all accounts they are extremely effective.  And it's impressive to hear about the rigour with which the children are taught from an early age.  The solid foundations they acquire come into their own when the maths gets more challenging in secondary school.

What's also always observed in Shanghai classrooms is how well disciplined and attentive the Chinese children are.  And there's the rub, because you can't judge the effectiveness in the classroom without taking into account the wider culture in which it sits, not least the influence that parents have on the child's learning.  You won't find Chinese parents at a dinner party boasting how they were never good at maths.  Like most Asians the Chinese think of maths as a vital, high status skill that must be acquired, and that the route to success is hard work rather than innate talent.

Before we get carried away with wanting to replace our teaching methods with those of the Chinese, a couple of anecdotes. 

I have new neighbours, a Chinese family.  The dad works for a Chinese bank, the mum for another financial company.  They are sending their young son to a private school, but what intrigued me was the criterion that they had at the top of the list when selecting the school.  "We like that they do so much sport, it's important that our boy gets a rounded education," said the dad. "In China, there is just so much pressure on the children from an early age, it's not good."

Coincidentally, a couple of months ago a Chinese dad (called Yip) came along to one of my maths and magic talks at the Royal Institution.  He emailed afterwards to say he wanted to meet up.  Yip was really excited at the material he'd seen.  What got him so excited?  It was the open ended nature of the puzzles, the children eagerly putting up their hands to have a go, the playfulness.  Reduced to a single word, what he so liked was the creativity.  When we met, he told me he'd been trying out some of the material on his own children. "You have more than one child?" I asked.  "Yes, I had to pay a fine because of the one child policy, but that was ok, I'm not famous so it didn't cost me much.  Celebrities pay a fortune if they want more than one child."  He revealed that he has taken his children out of formal education and is now home-schooling them (not legal, but tolerated as long as you don't make noise about it).  Like my neighbour, Yip mentioned the intense pressure in the Chinese school system.

All of which is a reminder that scores in things like the international PISA tests aren't the whole story.

But let's suppose that we were able to turn around our maths education so that it was the envy of the world.  Imagine the Chinese buying up our education system in the way they have bought up vast areas of mineral resources in Africa, for example.

Well, in a way, this is already happening.  Last week I gave a maths talk at a prestigious independent school in the South of England.  My talk was for the lower sixth (Year 12) mathematicians, and I was told to expect around 30 students.  As I planned my talk, which featured the game theory involved in penalty-taking as well as some of the maths of cricket, I failed to anticipate the make-up of my audience.   When the group arrived, I was struck how the entire group was from East Asia, every single one, the vast majority of them Chinese.  Needless to say my references to Kevin Pietersen and Sachin Tendulkar were met with blank looks, so I scooted through that part of the talk even faster than usual.

It's becoming commonplace for the maths departments of independent schools in the south of England to be dominated by Asian students.  (It does wonders for the school's maths results, a teacher friend told me.) The same applies to many of the maths and engineering departments in our universities. On the one hand this is quite a pat on the back for our education system. Education has become one of our strongest exports.  But unlike selling Rolls Royces or Single Malt whisky, there are times when this feels a bit like selling our soul.