What’s Shanghai’s educational secret? The PISA international assessment focuses on students’ ability to apply their knowledge and skills to real-life challenges. Shanghai students topped all 65 countries and economies in all 3 categories in the 2009 PISA tests. More importantly, in reading, mathematics and science Shanghai had the world’s highest percentage (76%) of ‘resilient students’ – children from the bottom socioeconomic quarter who score in the top quarter among students from all countries with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. In subsequent years Shanghai drew even further ahead.
In Summerhill, one of the most important educational books ever written, A.S. Neill recounted what wonders education could perform for a few privileged children. In her new book, Learning from Shanghai, Charlene Tan shows and explains what wonders can be performed in conventional classrooms of 50-60 children, even for disadvantaged children. Shanghai’s educational wonders, it turns out, are almost beyond the wildest dreams of Western parents and educators. How did Shanghai’s giant (pop. 26 million, 1.3 million students, 90,000 teachers, 764 primary and 754 secondary schools) beat the entire world by a huge margin? What’s Shanghai’s education secret? Professor Tan breaks it down with questions like
Learning from Shanghai
- How did Shanghai create the world’s best best school system in 2009?
- How did they pull further ahead in 2015?
- Why are they dropping PISA testing now?
- What they’re planning to do next? Learning from Shanghai[/caption
When she visited Shanghai Wendy Kopp, Founder of Teach for America, was curious, too:
A couple of decades ago, Shanghai had a school system that was plagued by the same problems we’re facing here in the USA. There were significant disparities between the achievement levels of native children and the children of migrant families, and overall educational levels were low. Today, the best international measures we have show that Shanghai has the highest levels of educational excellence and equity in the world—to the point where their 15 year olds are now on average 3 grade levels ahead of kids in Massachusetts, our highest performing state. Imagine that. What could be more important than getting ourselves to Shanghai and finding out how they’ve done this?
There are a number of factors to account for Shanghai’s educational success, but one key factor is the school leaders. The Shanghai educators I’ve met are all well-versed in international affairs, global in their outlook, IT savvy and even ‘Westernised’ compared to their counterparts in other parts of China. But beneath all these are deeply ingrained sociocultural values, beliefs and logics that shape their behaviours and influence their school leadership styles. And it’s this curious mix of tradition and modernity, a synthesis of East and West, that characterises school leadership, teaching and learning in Shanghai. It is a story that is waiting to be told.. Read more…
SHANGHAI PRINCIPALS: ‘There are no students who cannot be taught well’
Charlene Tan dug deeper and found that school leadership is only one ingredient in Shanghai’s recipe for success: I arrived at the school in the principal’s car. The principal had sent his chauffeur to pick me up from East China Normal University, where I had been staying. Most Shanghai principals are provided with a car and a personal chauffeur…
…the principal continued, ‘In China, we have this saying, “There are no students who cannot be taught well, only teachers who cannot teach well.” [meiyou jiaobuhao de xuesheng, zhiyou jiaobuhao de laoshi]. So if you’ve a wholehearted spirit, you’ll teach well.’…
…A public lesson is a lesson conducted by a teacher that is observed and critiqued by others. The ‘others’ could be teachers from the same school, teachers from other schools, educational experts, parents and members of the public. It can be offered at the school level, district level or municipal level and is a requirement for teacher professional development and teacher appraisal in Shanghai. Such a lesson requires a lot of preparation and can be stressful for teachers. The principal said: ‘For public lessons, we’ve already created a structural culture. So if you don’t want to conduct a public lesson, there’s an invisible hand to direct you, to make you do it. Otherwise, you cannot be promoted to the next grade, your assessment score at the mid-year appraisal will not be high’.
He went on to elaborate how his school has launched new expanded and research courses and innovative teaching approaches that emphasize student-centred learning. These include experiential learning where students apply scientific principles to test the quality of food they purchase from the supermarkets and a teaching approach that underscores student group discussions and oral presentations. It is evident that the principal has leveraged the school’s autonomy to design interesting courses and teaching approaches that are tailored for the school’s needs. At the same time, he is careful to ensure that his school initiatives adhere to the spirit and requirements of the curriculum reform.
Shanghai Teachers: ‘Education Is Filling a Bucket and Lighting a Fire’
Professor Tan discovered, to the delight of teachers everywhere, that Shanghai teachers spend only 15 hours a week in classroom instruction. The rest of the time they’re rehearsing ways to get their points across:
Chinese teachers, like master chess players, are known for putting in a lot of thought and preparation in their teaching and training their students to make the ‘right moves’ in exams. (I shall return to and elaborate on the chess analogy later.) This attitude is expressed in a local proverb that ‘to give a student a cup of water, a teacher should have a bucket of water’ [yaogei xuesheng yibeishui, jiaoshi ziji yinggai you yitongshui]. As explained by a Chinese academic: ‘It means a teacher should be familiar with not only the teaching materials, but also the wider background knowledge relevant to the teaching materials’ (Chen, 2009 , p. 97). It is noteworthy that the Chinese word for ‘teacher’ is ‘jiaoshi’ which comprises two characters: ‘jiao’ which means ‘teach’ and ‘shi’ which means ‘master’ or ‘expert’. Therefore, the term ‘jiaoshi’ underscores the cultural belief that a teacher should not just be an instructor but a ‘teaching master’ or ‘teaching expert’. To quench the student’s thirst, a teacher should have many, many cups of water, or simply put, have a bucket of water.
The emphasis on content mastery explains why the Chinese syllabi tend to be pitched at a higher level of difficulty compared to other countries. Commenting on Shanghai’s PISA achievement, a school principal said: ‘What’s tested in PISA is what the students have already learnt; in China, the level of content difficulty is higher than in many other countries of the same grade’. This point was repeated by other principals and teachers who told me of their personal observations when they visited schools in Anglophone countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. For example, a vice-principal said: Last year, I went to Germany and looked at their mathematics textbook for senior secondary school year 1. Much of the content in the textbook is what we’ve learnt in junior secondary year 2. This difference is relevant in explaining our PISA achievement. Our students find the PISA questions easy as they are already familiar with the concepts.
Exams are not just important for students; they are essential to the teachers too because, as one teacher put it, ‘the exam scores re fl ect how good your teaching is’. High exam scores are translated into greater rewards for the teacher as they validate his or her ability to teach well. The priority placed on exam scores entails that a mastery of subject knowledge, repeated practice and exam techniques remain important to the students. Hence, teachers need to continue to give their students cups and cups of water so that they have a ready supply of water with which to face the desert of exams without dying of thirst. A teacher said: In Shanghai, it’s about earning a piece of paper. ‘One exam to determine the rest of your life’ [yikao dingzhongshen]. You’ll move up if you score well, you’ll move down if you don’t. That’s what’s happening. In China the greatest source of pressure comes from the desire to gain employment. Ultimately we still need to return to academic subjects, to exam scores. You can have all kinds of activities for the students to have fun in but ultimately it’s the exam that matters.
OECD PISA Scores
3. Shanghai Parents: Tiger Mothers, Dragon Children
‘What do you think are the main factors that contributed towards Shanghai’s success in PISA?’ This was a question I asked principals and teachers in every school I visited in Shanghai. Invariably, the respondents would mention parents. ‘Parents devote money, time and energy to their child’s education’, said a vice-principal. ‘As long as the child is willing to learn, more than 95% of parents are willing to spend the money, even if 70% of family expenses go to the child’s learning’, he added. A 2004 survey points out that the main purpose for saving in Chinese households is to pay for their children’s education (Mok, Wong & Zhang, 2009 , p. 508). Explaining the fi erce competition in Shanghai, a teacher who has taught for over two decades in Shanghai said: In Shanghai, our thinking is that the kind of senior secondary school you attend will determine the kind of university you’ll go to. This is reality. The kind of junior secondary school will determine the kind of senior secondary school, just like the kind of primary school you go to will determine the kind of junior secondary school you eventually attend. So the competition starts with kindergarten. An even earlier competition begins from the time the child is born. And even earlier is prenatal education [taijiao].
A principal pointed out that many Chinese parents missed the opportunity to receive higher education due to historical and social reasons. Hence they try all means to fulfil their desires vicariously through their children. ‘The parents have put all their hopes on their child and devote all their energies to the child. The child’s learning, school promotion, choice of career, all determine the fate of the entire family’, he added. A senior teacher who has taught for 30 years in the rural school explained: Every week, for two hours, teachers teaching the same subject will come together to discuss, share good ideas, their problems. This allows the teachers to prepare lessons in a more in-depth manner. … The teacher training college in the county will also bring the teachers together to learn and exchange ideas. For example, our school currently focuses on the theme on ‘creating effective lessons’, so we organise teacher essay competitions, lesson plan competitions, classroom activities, and so on.
There’s much, much more in this treasure-trove of a book (which you can borrow free for a week from Amazon) as this abbreviated table of contents shows:
- The Beginning: Shanghai, PISA and Globalisation.
- A Conversation with a Shanghai Principal.
- The Chinese Teacher as a Chess Master
- ‘Education Is Filling a Bucket and Lighting a Fire’: The Shanghai Teacher
- Tiger Mothers, Dragon Children
- ‘Chinese-Style’ Education for All.
- ‘To Develop Every Student’: Towards Quality-Oriented Education
- Balancing Decentralisation with Centralisation
- Autonomy and Accountability: The School Appraisal System
- Testing Times: Exams as Means of Central Control
- Examining the Exam Papers.
- Taking Teacher Professional Development Seriously
- Towards Innovation and Application: Curriculum Changes in Shanghai Schools
- From Teacher Talk to Student Talk: Dialogue-Style Teaching.
- The ‘Post-Tea House Teaching’ Approach
- Critical Thinking: The Chinese Way
- Kung Fu Panda: Teacher Mentoring and Collaboration
- Developing (f)or Appraising: School-Based Teacher Training
- The End: Learning ABC from Shanghai
Finally, Part III, The Practice, the meat of the book for educators, gives real-life examples of lesson planning, delivery styles, critical thinking, evaluation, teacher mentoring and collaboration, school-based teacher training and more.
Press Comments on Shanghai’s Educational Success:
Tom Friedman, The New York Times. SHANGHAI — We’re visiting some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in China to try to uncover The Secret — how is it that Shanghai’s public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure the ability of 15-year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they’ve learned in math, science and reading. After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, with 754 students — grades one through five — and 59 teachers, I think I found The Secret: There is no secret. When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers. –
Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General: Short of arguments about methodology, some people turn to dismissing Shanghai’s strong performance by saying that Shanghai’s students are only good on the kind of tasks that are easy to teach and easy to test, and that those things are losing in relevance because they are also the kind of things that are easy to digitise, automate and outsource. But while the latter is true, the former is not. Consider this: Only 2% of American 15-year-olds and 3% of European ones reach the highest level of math performance in PISA, demonstrating that they can conceptualise, generalise and use math based on their investigations and apply their knowledge in novel contexts. In Shanghai it is over 30%. Educators in Shanghai have simply understood that the world economy will pay an ever-rising premium on excellence and no longer value people for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.
Memorization in Schools. OECD
Memorization in Schools[/caption]
A Shanghai Essay Writing Tests:
- A young monk joined a monastery and was curious about many things. It is autumn and many red leaves have filled the compound of the Buddhist temple. The young monk asked his master: ‘The red leaves are really beautiful, why must they fall off the tree?’ Master smiled and said: ‘Because winter is coming, the tree is unable to support so many leaves, and has to shed them. This is not giving up, but letting go!’ Based on the information above, formulate your own essay title and write an essay in not less than 800 words. This essay question is for 17-18 year-old students. It is taken from a district exam paper for senior secondary students in 2011and is typical of exam questions in Shanghai today. They are part of the Shanghai authorities’ endeavours to move away from an exam-oriented education characterised by memorisation and repeated practice of past exam questions to quality-oriented education where students are equipped with the ability to think reflectively and independently.
- Based on the information below, adopt a perspective, formulate your own essay title and write an essay in not less than 800 words. ‘Two old men are playing a game of chess in a park. They play it very slowly, making the observers feel impatient. An old man commented humorously: ‘You are not aware of this, but chess should be played slowly. Playing it slowly allows you to experience deeply the infinite changes and joy of chess; playing it fast gives us a murderous atmosphere, not like chess played among friends. Furthermore, once you place a piece on the chess board, the game begins to head towards death. If we rush through it, the chess board will be filled up fast, the chess will be dead. Good chess should be played slowly!’. Such a profound speech made the observers reflect deeply.
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