Shanghai should be proud of its mathematical soft power

2018-08-07

We had a hard time studying English, now it is your turn to learn math, in which we, the Chinese students, are proud of, reads a comment on Sina Weibo regarding the recent news that a new series of more difficult Chinese math textbooks will be published in the UK following the success of a previous edition, the Global Times reported.

East China Normal University Press (ECNUP) in cooperation with HarperCollins Publishers LLC is bringing its new series of math textbooks, 5 Minute Math Mastery, to the UK, reported Beijing Youth Daily on June 29. The announcement came after the success of ECNUP's previously published textbook, Shanghai Maths.

Chinese movies don't do well at foreign box offices, and the country's music isn't heard around the world. But Shanghai's math teaching methods have become an unlikely international hit, Sixth Tone wrote in April after Shanghai ranked first in two Programme for International Student Assessment in 2009 and 2012, with the organization declaring Shanghai's students outpaced their peers in most other countries by three years.

As a foreign teacher in China, I am painfully aware how much more advanced the Chinese are in mathematics than we Westerners are. I literally cannot count how many times my students have been able to out-calculate me in algebra and geometry. And when was the last time you ever saw a Western Math Teacher Needed in China job advertisement? They love us for English lessons, but when it comes to math, foreigners are infamous failures.

Our collective math scores are so abysmal that the British government in 2016 spent $54.3 million to bring Shanghai's math curriculum to 8,000 of its own primary schools, China Daily reported. British Prime Minister Theresa May during her recent visit to China announced the second extension of a 2014 math-exchange program between China and the UK involving 500 teachers.

One of these participating teachers, Caroline Hamilton, penned a June article for schoolsweek.co.uk about her observations, noting that there is a great deal of positivity around maths as the Chinese seem to have achieved balance. Lessons were shorter than ours and pupils were impeccably behaved and focused... students' deep respect for their teacher was evident.

Compare that with an American classroom, where the average high-schooler struggles with division. US News & World Report reported in April that most states have flat-lined in math, with fourth- and eighth-graders in the US having made little to no gains since 2015.

But Yong Zhao, a Chinese professor with the school of education at the University of Kansas, wrote in his new book What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education that East Asian education systems have been found to be very effective in producing excellent performances in tests and hurting students' social-emotional, psychological and physical well-being, resulting in less life satisfaction, less positive attitude and lower levels of confidence, Zhao was quoted by tes.com.

However, I side with Sun Jing, who wrote in a July opinion piece for Sixth Tone that Chinese-style math curriculum is not the culprit of this discontent, but rather the tiger parents who force children to attend competitions like the International Mathematical Olympiad. Private companies prepare conveyor-belt style training courses for prospective Math Olympiad competitors, killing the simple joy of learning something new.

China finished third last week at the 59th International Mathematical Olympiad in Romania, with the US and Russia winning first and second place respectively. Qu Zhenhua, head of the Chinese delegation, told Xinhua News Agency that the results are satisfactory.

Despite this embarrassment, China - and Shanghai in particular - have every right to be proud of their mathematical achievements, which they have been honing since the 11th century BC. So why not turn it into a successful soft power? Using math to promote cultural and people-to-people exchanges with Western nations adds up to good diplomacy.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


Source: GlobalTimes


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华东师范大学
East China Normal University