Why British schools are turning to Chinese textbooks to raise math scores

Starting in January, teachers in England will have the option of using “Real Shanghai Mathematics,” a series of 36 textbooks translated directly from Chinese into English.

BEIJING — Educators around the world were stunned when students in Shanghai came in first in their international standardized testing debut, besting their counterparts in dozens of countries in what some called a Sputniklike moment.

Now, some British schools will try to replicate that success by using translated textbooks that are otherwise all but identical to those in public elementary schools around Shanghai.

Starting in January, teachers in England will have the option of using “Real Shanghai Mathematics,” a series of 36 textbooks translated directly from Chinese into English. The only difference? The renminbi symbols will be replaced by British pound signs.

“All this time, Asians have been learning from the Western education system,” said Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Kansas. “Suddenly, it’s the reverse.”

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Western classrooms have adopted mathematics teaching techniques from Asia before. In the past, a small number of schools in the West experimented with a Singapore-style approach. It is similar to the method used in Shanghai, which is seen as having the best math teachers in China.

But experts say England is the first country to forge ahead with a bold government-backed plan to remake some classrooms in the image of the East. Under a $54 million initiative paid for by the government, more than half the primary schools in England will adopt a teaching approach to math that is used in top-performing places such as Shanghai and Singapore.

“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,” said Nick Gibb, the British schools minister who oversees primary education, when he announced the initiative last year.

The teaching method, known as the “mastery” approach, is based on the idea that all students can succeed in learning mathematics when given proper instruction. Whereas teachers in the West might describe a concept and then assign problems for students to solve individually, the mastery method is more interactive. Teachers frequently pose questions to…

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