Want to know Shanghai’s Education Secrets? Why the UK, with one of the best education systems on earth is following their lead (8,000 Schools In UK To Adopt Chinese Method Of Teaching Maths)? How does a city of 26 million – with for million migrants – beat the world in education by a huge margin?

Shanghai Education Secrets

Shanghai Education Secrets

Only two percent of American 15-year-olds and three percent of Europeans reach the highest level of math performance in the international PISA tests, 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 percent of kids reach the highest math level. How did Shanghai’s giant public school system beat the world? What’s Shanghai’s Education Secret?

I’m reading one of the most exciting books on education ever published. There have been landmark books on educating children, like A.S. Neal’s Summerhill, but few with the broad application and depth of consideration of Learning from Shanghai: Lessons on Achieving Educational Success by Charlene Tan. It’s a comprehensive, in-depth investigation of how Shanghai’s (pop 26 million) gigantic education system beat every education system on earth – by a wide margin that widened even further in subsequent testing. Clearly, it’s important to understand how they did it:

    1. How did Shanghai (pop. 26 million) create the world’s best best school system?
    2. How did they pull even further ahead in 2015?
    3. Why did they decide to drop out of international PISA testing?
    4. What they’re planning to do next? Learning from Shanghai[/caption

The answers aren’t as simple as Finland’s (pop. 6 million) decision to recruit teachers only from the top 20% of graduates – which kept Finland #1 in the world for years  (it’s now ten places behind Shanghai).

Shanghai PISA Scores

Shanghai PISA Scores

Wendy Kopp, Founder of Teach for America, starts her consideration thus:

A couple of decades ago, Shanghai had a school system that was plagued by the same problems we’re facing here. 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 (as I shall elaborate in this book), but one key factor is the school leaders. The Shanghai educators I’ve taught and 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 in fl uence 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. 2  It is a story that is waiting to be told.

I came across this rock in one of the schools I visited in Shanghai. The inscription reads: ‘learn painstakingly, experience joyfully’ [keku xuexi, kuaile tiyan]. Painstaking learning is not new to Shanghai or China as a whole. The Chinese word ‘ku’ literally means ‘bitter’. The Chinese commonly emphasise the need to ‘eat bitter’ [chiku] – to be ready to endure hardship before one can be successful in life. When I asked Shanghai educators and students the reasons for Shanghai’s educational success, quite a number cited.. Read more..

And responding to doubts about how typical Shanghai’s results are, Andreas Schleicher said, “Citing further, as-yet unpublished OECD research, Mr Schleicher said, “We have actually done Pisa in 12 of the provinces in China. Even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average”. Read more in The Financial Times..

Shanghai’s Education Secret: the Video

Shanghai’s School Principals 

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 have been staying. Most Shanghai principals are provided with a car and a personal chauffeur –

Taking a sip of the tea, the principal continued, ‘In China, we often 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.’

Fond of quoting Chinese proverbs, he said, ‘In China, we’ve this saying, “Eat from the big pot” [chi daguofan]. It means it’s the same whether you do your job Fond of quoting Chinese proverbs, he said, ‘In China, we’ve this saying, “Eat from the big pot” [chi daguofan]. It means it’s the same whether you do your job well or not, whether you do more or less; everyone gets the same pay. But this attitude cannot hold anymore in China. So under our allocation system, we underwent massive reforms and began to reward those with good educational results, good teaching results. We underwent changes in the school salary system, in appraisal system, in giving monetary rewards. Now we’ve a “with labour comes reward” [youlao youchou] system. You’ll get more if you do more. I think this is very necessary because at the management level, there is an invisible hand to manage and direct the school.’ As he said this, he moved his hand in a wave-like manner to illustrate the motion of an invisible hand in the air. ‘I’m not saying that “human beings are willing to die for money and birds are willing to die for food” [renwei caisi, niaowei shiwang]’, he added, quoting another well-known Chinese proverb about the materialistic instinct of human nature.

‘But human beings still need to consider their survival. We do not expect everyone’s thinking to reach the same level, but money can still have certain effects. So this is one reform. Of course there’re other reforms, such as regulation of the teaching system and so on. But I think this monetary reform is the most important.’ He went on to elaborate on how the ‘invisible hand’ works using the example of ‘public’ or ‘open’ lessons [gongkaike]. 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’.

An engaging conversationalist, he continued, ‘A first-class school also depends on having a fi rst-class classroom. ‘And a fi rst-class classroom, in my view, needs to point to a direction in reform. This direction needs to suit the students’ cognitive development, suit society’s development demands, and will not fail in practice. Our school-based curriculum ful fi ls the spirit of the second phase curriculum reform, and also ful fi lls our school’s requirement for special characteristics.’

He went on to elaborate how his school has launched new expanded and research courses (I shall explain these courses in Chap. 7 ) and innovative teaching approaches that emphasise student-centred learning. These include experiential learning where students apply scienti fi c 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 on the school autonomy given to him 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.

The principal’s active involvement in the school activities is also evident in his lesson observations of teachers. ‘I observe lessons every school term. On average, I listen to 4 lessons per term’, he said. Alluding to the cultural value of collectivism where teacher sharing is common, he said, ‘I just observe lessons randomly. I’ll just say, “Little He [a teacher’s name], I’ll observe your lesson tomorrow”. After that we’ll have an informal chat and discuss any problems that arose.

What came across strongly in his sharing was his reliance on prizes, exam results, college entrance rates and school rankings to validate his school’s success. This is a common phenomenon in China – references to quanti fi able yardsticks that are perceived to be objective, scienti fi c and fair. The value and preponderance of targets, indicators and evaluations to measure a school’s success in Shanghai reminds me of a performative culture. It is a culture that ‘employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic) ’ (Ball, 2003 , p. 216)

‘Education Is Filling a Bucket and Lighting a Fire’: The Shanghai Teacher

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 dif fi culty 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 fi nd 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.

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 fulfill 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.

‘Chinese-Style’ Education for All

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.

Under the appraisal system, every school is required to formulate a 3-year development plan that comes with a yearly implementation plan. Each school needs to rally its entire staff to draft the plan based on the demands of the current curriculum reform that underscores a quality-oriented education. Each school needs to analyse its situation and identify its developmental vision, targets, strategies and measures. The Shanghai Municipal People’s Government Educational Supervisory Of fi ce will then conduct an on-site inspection, and the supervisory experts will cast votes on whether the plan passes inspection. Any school plan that does not pass the inspection will need to be modi fi ed. After the inspection, the schools will carry out their plan, with regular self-appraisal. The self-appraisal process is known as ‘school autonomous development supervision’, which forms a part of the school’s appraisal. This process entails the schools forming their own ‘autonomous supervision committee’ and organising a ‘teachers’ congress’ [jiaodaihui] to discuss the school’s plan and implementation methods. The school administration then needs to announce the plan to all its teaching staff, parents and students at the start of the school term; accept the teachers’ congress’ monitoring and appraisal during the term; give a debrief to the teachers’ congress at the end of the term; and improve upon its plan based on feedback from the teacher’s congress. The school also needs to give a report to the supervisory office every term and share the self-appraisal reports with the public. The school will determine the academic year’s work plan based on the 3-year plan and break down the targets of the plan into yearly targets to be carried out by the respective departments and people in charge. The supervisory office will visit the school regularly during the implementation phase of the plan to check on the

 Testing Times: Exams as Means of Central Control

A Chinese academic explains why a summative and closed-book written exam system is privileged in China: In China, education’s main function is selection. Through the screening of exams, people are allocated different grades, including different grades of schools, different grades of work places, different grades of social position. … Our country has a huge population with limited resources, so it can only allow a limited number of people to receive higher education and enjoy excellent educational resources. Therefore education needs to fulfill the selection function. To ensure that the selection is fair, standardised closed-book exams become the only choice. (Shangguan, 2005 , pp. 283–284)

Taking Teacher Professional Development Seriously

As different teacher professional development plans are targeted at teachers of different grades, it is helpful, at the outset of this chapter, to briefly outline 4 main hierarchical titles for teachers in Shanghai, as follows: 1. Third-grade teachers. They are beginning teachers in their fi rst 3 years of service. 2. Second-grade teachers. They are intermediate teachers who are promoted from third-grade after 3–5 years of service. They need to undergo internal evaluation in the school. 3. First-grade teachers. They are advanced teachers who are promoted from secondgrade after at least 5 years of service. They need to undergo internal evaluation in the school and external evaluation at the district level. 4. Senior-grade teachers. They are teachers who are promoted from fi rst-grade after at least 5 years of service. They need to undergo internal evaluation in the school and external evaluation at the district level. Besides the above of fi cial titles, there are two main honorary titles given to excellent teachers: Backbone teacher [gugan jiaoshi] and Special-grade teacher [teji jiaoshi]. Backbone teachers are experienced teachers who have obtained at least a second grade. They comprise about 30% of the teaching workforce and are usually above 30 years old. Special-grade teachers are teachers who have achieved the rare honour of being outstanding in their teaching and leadership. They have usually taught for many years and have distinguished themselves in pioneering new and successful practices that are acknowledged by the authorities and teaching community.

As a principal noted, ‘China is still trying to break free of forbidden zones, many domains still have ideological oppression, especially in the humanities, it is dif fi cult to apply the Chinese saying of “the words of children are harmless” [tongyan wuji]’. Socioculturally, students who grow up in a single-child family environment in China tend to be protected and doted on by their parents and teachers and therefore may not be used to independent questioning and doubting.

Comments on Shanghai’s Educational Success:

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. The Shanghai Secret–Tom Friedman, The New York Times..Read more...

Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves? Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes. When a Chinese does, the first reflex seems to be that they must have been doping; or if that’s taking it too far, that it must have been the result of inhumane training. There seem to be parallels to this in education. Only hours after results from the latest PISA assessment showed Shanghai’s school system leading the field, Time magazine concluded the Chinese must have been cheating.

They didn’t bother to read the PISA 2012 Technical Background Annex, which shows there was no cheating, whatsoever, involved. Nor did they speak with the experts who had drawn the samples or with the international auditors who had carefully reviewed and validated the sample for Shanghai and those of other countries. Others were quick to suggest that resident internal migrants might not be covered by Shanghai’s PISA sample, because years ago those migrants wouldn’t have had access to Shanghai’s schools. But, like many things in China, that has long changed and, as described by PISA, resident migrants were covered by the PISA samples in exactly the way they are covered in other countries and education systems. Still, it seems to be easier to cling to old stereotypes than keep up with changes on the ground (or to read the PISA report).  

True, like other emerging economies, Shanghai is still building its education system and not every 15-year-old makes it yet to high school. As a result of this and other factors, the PISA 2012 sample covers only 79% of the 15-year-olds in Shanghai. But that is far from unique. Even the United States, the country with the longest track record of universal high-school education, covered less than 90% of its 15-year-olds in PISA – and it didn’t include Puerto Rico in its PISA sample, a territory that is unlikely to have pulled up U.S. average performance.  International comparisons are never easy and they are never perfect. But anyone who takes a serious look at the facts and figures will concede that the samples used for PISA result in robust and internationally comparable data. They have been carefully designed and validated to be fit for purpose in collaboration with the world’s leading experts, and the tests are administered under strict and internationally comparable conditions. Anyone who really wants to find out can review the underlying data. 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.

Memorization in Schools. OECD

Memorization in Schools. OECD

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. Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General  Read more….

What’s PISA? (Answer Some PISA Test Questions Here.)

“What differentiates PISA from other international assessments is its focus on the students’ ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. Shanghai students emerged top among 65 countries and economies in all 3 categories in 2009: reading, mathematics, and science (OECD, 2010b, 2010c).  Shanghai also has the world’s highest percentage (76%) of ‘resilient students’ in 2009, defined as students who come from the bottom quarter of the distribution of socioeconomic background in their country who have scored in the top quarter among students from all countries with similar socioeconomic backgrounds (OECD, 2010e, p. 13).”

“In 2010, the percentage of teachers with at least a university degree in kindergarten, primary and secondary schools was 71.7%, which is an increase of 19.7% compared to 2005 (Shanghai Municipal Commission, 2011c). Raising the teachers’ academic qualification also includes sending promising school leaders overseas. For example, several cohorts of Shanghai principals, heads of departments and education officers have completed a full-time Master of Educational Administration degree at the National Institute of Education in Singapore since 2008. Teacher upgrading also includes professional courses. For example, at least 95% of all Shanghai teachers have obtained qualifying certificates and others, advanced certificates for designing Information technology curriculum since 1996 (Zhao, 2009 , p. 43).”

Essay Writing: 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.

The essay question above is meant for 17-year-old and 18-year-old students. It is taken from a district exam paper for senior secondary students in 2011. (Anon, 2011a , p. 21). The above questions are 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 (Anon, 2011c , p. 10).”

Written by Godfree
Visiting China and studying it since 1967. Interested in its culture, politics, education and economy.