Mathematics teaching in China: reflections from an Ofsted HMI

By Sean Harford HMI, National Director, Initial Teacher Education, Ofsted

Reposted from TES Connect.

In late February I was a member of a delegation representing HM Government that visited the three Chinese provinces of Shanghai, Beijing and Hubei with a specific focus on mathematics education.

I have waited until now to reflect on my visit to China because I wanted to go back into some English schools to test out the thinking I developed while there. The differences in maths outcomes for our young people between the two countries are stark and worrying for us, unless we act now to catch up – and I do not mean just in terms of PISA test scores. I am coming at this not only from an inspector’s point of view, but also from my background of being a physics teacher and so frequent user of maths, reliant on pupils being able to handle and manipulate numbers confidently. In this respect, Chinese children are streets ahead of ours, so the benefits of their high standards in mathematics go way beyond just this core subject.


As everyone knows, Her Majesty’s Inspectors are not concerned about the ‘how’ but ‘how effective’ with teaching. This approach requires a clear focus on the outcomes for the pupils and their response to the teaching, including crucially the evidence of learning and progress over time in their work books and folders. These were impressive in the classes we observed in China, and told a story of a consistency of approach and expectations that has led to the pupils being confident mathematicians, willing to have a go and able to tackle problems in different contexts.

For example, given this problem…:

X = 2√ (7/14 x 28/7 x 3/9 x 24/8 x 18/9)

… none of the 12-year-old pupils reached for the calculator; they couldn’t because they have been banned from their classrooms. They calmly looked for the potential to cancel and reduce the fractions, and spotted that this expression is really just the square root of 4. Not a job for the calculator; not for them at least. This was clearly not about them learning ‘tricks’ either. This problem was one of just 4 or 5 set by the teacher in a 5 minute burst of practice, to help the pupils master the concepts covered by her in the latest part of the lesson before they moved on confidently together to the next stage of increasingly challenging maths. The key was not the teacher’s ‘performance’ in this lesson, but the demonstration of the depth of the pupils’ mathematical learning over time and the impressive armoury of knowledge and skills they had built up to deploy as and when needed. Evidence of solidly knowing their times tables was absolutely apparent across the pupils, as was the ability to use efficient methods of calculation without having to really think. Their mathematical toolkit was there to be used as surely as a mechanic’s spanners, or a surgeon’s scalpel

Read the rest at TES Connect.

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