The UK can certainly learn from the Far East, says Caroline Hamilton, but cultural context is key, and what our teachers need most is time-efficient professional development

Two years ago, I was fortunate to be part of the Shanghai exchange as part of the Maths Hubs initiative. The experience was fascinating, and not at all what I expected.
Here are five takeaways that struck me the most:

1. Cultural attitudes towards maths count
I got to know the exchange teachers extremely well, and what came through was that in China there is a very clear mathematics learning journey set out. There is a great deal of positivity around maths, and the impact on children’s perspective and outcomes is significant. If a child is falling behind, it is up to the child to work on addressing the issue, and parents are likely to be contacted and expected to help or provide a tutor.
In the UK we have many supportive parents, but it’s not uncommon to hear people say “I’m not very good at maths”, and the culture of tutoring is not as widespread here as it is in Singapore and Shanghai. This means the onus is on schools and teachers to intervene when children are struggling.

2. Most of our primary teachers aren’t maths specialists
In Shanghai teachers are seen as inexperienced until they have been teaching for at least ten years. They spend a great deal of time refining their practice and learning from experienced “master teachers”, and training as a maths specialist takes several years.
When I completed my graduate training programme, I had only six one-hour sessions focused on maths. We need to give time-famished UK teachers, who are teaching full timetables, enough opportunity to focus on professional development. They should also be given bite-sized options to avoid long periods out of school or the expectation that they will undertake evening and weekend study.

3. Children need time to be children
My biggest surprise during the exchange was that the Chinese seem to have achieved balance. Lessons were shorter than ours (approximately 35 mins) and pupils were impeccably behaved and focused. When the bell rang at the end of the lesson, a short break allowed them to let off steam – they were free to be children.
The relationship between students and their teacher was very informal during breaks, in a way that would not be tolerated in many UK schools. Yet as soon as lessons resumed, the focus was immediately back in place, and students’ deep respect for their teacher was evident. Perhaps there is something we can learn from this.

4. Lesson study and observations
Regular and large group observations are seen as an essential part of developing excellent practice in Asia. Lesson study is particularly effective in Japan, where teachers focus on a single research objective during the lesson.
The lesson is taught with other teacher observers and then the study session is facilitated by an educated other, usually a professor in education from a higher education institute.
While this practice is becoming more common in the UK, it is not yet fully embedded. But there is nothing to stop self-reflection on practice, with a focus on a single objective, such as how well struggling children are being supported, and for this to become a form of reflective practice.

5. Use of variation theory
This is a common part of the teaching resources used in Shanghai, with students exposed to concepts in a variety of ways and asked questions designed to make them think and make connections.
This can be very difficult for a UK teacher to design without a high level of subject knowledge. High-quality materials, such as textbooks on the approved DfE list, can provide these types of questions and representations for our teachers so that they can spend time focusing on their delivery.
There is clearly a great deal that the UK can learn from how countries such as China, Japan and Singapore teach maths. However, we must remember the vital role context has to play, as what works well in one culture won’t fit seamlessly into another.