Stockton to Shenzhen: Teaching on the Other Side of the World – a Stephenson College Bursary Funded Venture

For those of you who do Primary Ed, I’m sure that mastery and mathematics have become two words that go together like bread and butter or salt and vinegar. Don’t be fooled by this though, the Mastery approach to Maths is still quite a mystery to most people (both inside and outside of the educational bubble), so here is a quick rundown of how mastery is perceived in the UK:

  • The mastery approach originates in Asia and has been implemented into British classrooms by the Department for Education in an effort to raise the UK standing in International attainment leader boards.
  • It is an understanding that all children are capable of being successful mathematicians, if given enough time.
  • The implementation of a maths curriculum that emphasises a few, big ideas and utilises the links between different concepts.
  • The need to teach maths in greater depth, rather than accelerating through content.
  • The importance of developing a child’s ability to understand ‘why’ they are doing something and not just ‘how’.

These principals are shared and understood by most educators however my time working in different primary schools revealed that, actually, these rarely translated into teaching. In fact, what was more common is to see was a teacher put a word problem on the whiteboard at the end of a lesson as if this was enough to fulfil the mastery criteria. So why are you telling me this I hear you ask. Well, just before the Easter break, I was lucky enough, along with 13 other 3rd year Primary Ed students, to travel to Shenzhen and spend two weeks, teaching English and observing Mathematics in Chinese primary schools. Throughout the rest of this post, I will discuss what I actually discovered about teaching in China, along with other unexpected discoveries I made…mostly about food.

So, what was teaching actually like in China?

It’s fair to say that I arrived in China with a stereotyped view that Chinese children were going to be subjected to military-style discipline and would almost be robotic in their learning. For the most part this is entirely false. All the children that I had the opportunity to observe and teach were enthusiastic and loved being at school and made my time their unforgettable. Even though the language barrier was quite daunting, the children all made an effort to speak English where they could, even if my Chinese didn’t quite live up to their expectations (nĭ hăo and xièxie is about as impressive as it got…that means hello and thank you).

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I did say that it was only false for the most part and there were notable occasions, usually involving the whole school, where the children would partake in a military-style parade. In particular, this happened every Monday morning where the school would have a flag raising ceremony and then salute the Chinese flag. Although it was impressive to watch nearly 2000 children line-up and stand in a perfectly organised manner, there was also something quite eerie about it from my perspective which perhaps shows how British primary schools are quite detached from that type of regimented parading.

In terms of actual teaching. I definitely walked away feeling as though British classrooms have access to far better resources and are definitely set-out in a way that is more conducive to group work and shared learning. In Chinese classrooms, there would be around 40-50 children sat in rows. Their main resource would be a blackboard and this would have a screen in the middle showing a lesson PowerPoint. Apart from that, they only had a small range of hands-on resources for the children to use. To start with, it felt as though this would limit how the teacher could teach a certain idea, but actually, it does link to the mastery principal of offering children a smaller range of key ideas. The Chinese teachers were all fascinated by the British style of teaching and were enthused to see how we taught using group work and shared learning experiences, although this approach would be difficult to fully implement in China without rearranging the rows into groups.

What did I discover about teaching for mastery?

Well, after having numerous meetings with different Chinese teachers, it became quite clear that they were not aware of the mastery approach towards Mathematics. This is not to say that they did not teach for mastery, they just did not label it in the same way that we would in the UK. I think this is perhaps the most significant understanding that I took away from my experience in China. In the UK, we seem to have an educational system that moves from one big educational idea to the next and I suppose that really reflects our own political system. Either way, because we have these big ideas, like the mastery approach, and then move on, it prevents an educational culture from ever becoming really established. This is what stood out in Chinese education, that all of the children, parents and teachers strongly believed in their culture towards education. The teachers demonstrated a range of the mastery principals in their teaching but not because they were labelled with ‘mastery’, just because they believed that this was the right way to teach. This is something that ultimately will never be replicated in the UK, because our educational system prioritises short term attainment over long term educational success, and that’s clear to see on every school website that publishes their school Ofsted rating.

What else did I get out of the trip?
I don’t want to ramble on but I honestly could, it really was a two weeks packed with incredible experiences. To finish, this is what school dinners looked like. I’d love to tell you what each part of it actually was but nothing was labelled so yeah, it could have been anything. After a few days, we found the things that we thought were nice and stuck to those but one thing I could never get used to was how every piece of meat you had would be 90% either bone or gristle.

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The final thing to mention is a huge thank you to our Uni lecturers who organised the trip made it all possible. I know that everyone who went is grateful beyond words for all of your hard work!

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Article written by: Dan Jones