How does Shanghai do it?

OECD education report: Shanghai’s formula is world-beating

Reads one headline in the Telegraph.  Obsession over Shanghai’s ‘formula’ was sparked by their, literally, outstanding PISA test results; coming top in maths, reading and science. Roughly normalised, the numbers look something like this:

1st             Shanghai           100

26th          UK                    80

65th          Peru                   60

Sample PISA maths questions can be found here.

Shanghai’s mathematics education is world-beating, according to PISA test scores

Katie Ashford recently did some reading on the topic, and put together this rather handy summary which I’ve personally found insightful.

So here’s how they do it in Shanghai, according to the: Report on International Maths Research Programme China 2014


(Thank you Katie Ashford for allowing me to republish this summary here)


Specialist Leaders in Education (SLEs) Mathematics in Shanghai and Ningbo, China 10-17 January 2014.

“It is a teacher’s duty to teach but a student’s duty to learn.”

– Chinese school pupil

50 SLEs, from both primary and secondary phases, visited schools in Shanghai and Ningbo, China, to develop an understanding of how maths is taught in these high performing regions. Many of the findings are relevant across subjects.

Expectations are extremely high and are embedded into Chinese culture. People see hard work as an agent for change. Open and public examinations mean that all pupils are expected to sit the same Teacher development is a priority. Teachers must carry out at least 360 hours of research-based CPD within the first five years of their careers. CPD time is spent studying for research-based qualifications, enacting and evaluating research, and meeting with teams of teacher-researchers.

High performing schools support lower performing schools. This is overseen and funded by local educational authorities.

Five distinct, deeply rooted practices define the Shanghai approach:

1. Practice and consolidation

  • Constant formal practice
  • Repetition for assured fluency
  • Mastery through variations in problem types
  • Focus on mental maths and core numeracy skills
  • Little or no focus on inquiry
  • Standardised calculation strategies rather than a variety of methods taught.
  • Visual representations to demonstrate concepts before moving on to abstract representations
  • Review lessons are used to consolidate learning.

2. Specialist Maths teaching

  • All teachers must have a degree in maths
  • Graduate specialists teach primary maths
  • Pedagogy not perceived as a transferable skill; teachers are masters of their subject, not others.
  • New teachers observe experienced teachers almost daily
  • Observations are not graded
  • Teacher research groups drill down into important subject-based questions- ‘how to teach x’

3. Efficient teaching

  • Low class contact ratios
  • Teachers teach a small number of collaboratively planned lessons each day
  • Lessons are repeated with the same age classes
  • Teachers work together rather than in isolation
  • 80 minutes teaching;
  • Marking of homework and classwork;
  • Tutoring pupils who need help
  • Planning lessons in teams
  • Carrying out research
  • Observing colleagues
  • Routines and structures are embedded in the classroom.
  • Teacher talk is focused around lesson content
  • Teacher talks for the majority of the time

4. Immediacy of feedback and interventions

  • Maths is taught in the morning
  • Work is marked and returned at the end of the day
  • Homework is handed in at the start of the day and marked in time for the lesson that day.
  • Pupils act on feedback the same day
  • Misconceptions addressed immediately
  • Homework regarded as pivotal to pupils’ success
  • Emphasis on the pupil making the effort to learn

5. Preventing rather than closing the gap

  • Additional help given before children can fall behind
  • Facilitated by daily feedback and action cycle
  • Genuinely high expectations

About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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1 Response to How does Shanghai do it?

  1. Have to say it sounds like premature optimisation to me. So Shanghai has an excellent system for maxing out PISA-style questions. But is it worth putting so much effort into perfecting a system for drilling PISA (or the gaokao or GCSE or whatever) until we’re convinced it’s a reliable measure for the qualities we need from school leavers?

    Totally anecdotal I know, but students (both home and foreign) who have been through institutions which drill exams very efficiently do seem to struggle on the two British maths degrees I’ve experienced. They expect a large quantity of similar past papers, and they sometimes discard knowledge which has already been tested – focusing on the outcome of a shorter-term assessment rather than longer-term learning. Are you convinced GCSE/PISA-type assessments are the best criteria to optimise towards?

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