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Chinese Mathematics Pedagogy and Practices: What Can We Learn?

by Annie Han annie 
November 2001

A number of cross-cultural studies have documented the apparent higher achievement in mathematics of Asian students as compared with students from other countries. By now, it is no secret that Asian students perform at a higher level in mathematics than do students in the United States, as indicated in such international comparisons as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The mathematics performance of students in the United States seems to be in decline, and mathematics education in the United States appears to be facing a crisis.

Previous research has focused on cross-cultural student achievement; however, little research exists on the associated cross-cultural mathematics teachers' professional training and teaching practices.

No one would disagree that mathematics is a primary source of lifelong learning or that it is related to the progress of civilization. Mathematics teachers play an important role in fostering students' mathematical learning, thinking, and development at school.

We all remember the "new math" movement of the late fifties, sixties, and seventies. It did not last. One possible reason may have been its failure to improve teacher training. The training of mathematics teachers in the United States is still based primarily on university or college classes and a few months of student teaching in classrooms. After entering the school system, many new teachers either sink or swim in this educational ocean, totally alone, lacking in support from the school and in general, from society. Some educators believe that this type of teacher training provides a model that demands that new teachers perform the full complement of teaching responsibilities from the first day of teaching.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to visit some public schools in Beijing, China. I interviewed elementary and secondary mathematics teachers, teacher educators, city and district in-service teacher trainers, and some principals. It was a wonderful experience for me. Teaching is a culture. I would like to share some of my primary findings with other educators.

A mathematics teacher's daily life in China 

I was surprised to see in one Beijing elementary school that teachers whose specialty was mathematics taught mathematics to first-grade classes. I visited a second-grade teachers' office where eight desks were arranged into two sets. One set was for four second-grade mathematics teachers, whereas the other set was for four second-grade Chinese language-arts teachers. This office arrangement physically provided opportunities for teachers to learn from each other, to share useful teaching techniques, to design effective lessons, and to discuss students' problems. These eight teachers each taught only two second-grade classes per day, with fifty students in each class.

The school has two daily sessions. The morning session of four classes starts at 8:00 a.m. and finishes at 11:30 a.m. After a two-and-one-half hour lunch break, the students return to school for two more classes. The classes end at 3:40 p.m., followed by an hour-long, after-school homework session. Students leave school around 4:40 p.m. Normally, all teachers arrive at school 15 to 30 minutes before 8:00 a.m. and leave around 5:00 p.m. each day. A significant part of the nonteaching time, about four and one-half hours, is devoted to preparing lessons, correcting students' homework, and dealing with student discipline problems.

All four second-grade mathematics teachers, who teach the same lesson at about the same time, share helpful tips and teaching techniques among themselves. Parents can visit their child's teacher at any time when the teacher is not teaching. The Chinese schools that I visited did not have school psychologists or guidance counselors; the homeroom teacher, alone, was responsible for students' achievement and mental development.

Ongoing teacher-training programs 

In-service teacher training for Chinese teachers is district or school based. A half-day is reserved each week for teacher training. During that time, students do not attend classes. The trainers are all master teachers and use only one centralized standard curriculum that is followed daily. This curriculum serves as a guideline for teachers' daily lesson plans. A master teacher contacts the weekly in-service training administrator, who attends the training session as a teacher. Most of the administrators have backgrounds in teaching mathematics or science. Teachers attend the training not for extra credits, for pay raises, or for teacher-certification requirements, as is often the case in the United States.

To maintain teacher certification in the United States, new teachers, in particular, take additional course work at colleges or through classes sponsored by their unions at night, on weekends, or during summer vacation. Occasionally, teachers attend citywide or districtwide staff development workshops.

Profound differences exist in teacher preparation, professional training, and collaborative practices between the United States and China, as well as in the use or existence of a standardized curriculum and in teachers' and administrators' educational backgrounds. If a relationship exists between these differences and students' achievement in mathematics, then an investigation of the cross-cultural dissimilarities may shed light on why these variances exist in students' comparative achievement.


Annie Han is an assistant professor of mathematics at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), City University of New York (CUNY). Her research and professional interests include teaching mathematics, the history of mathematics, language and mathematics, Asian and Asian-American education, teacher education, technology-enhanced teaching practice, and distance-learning education. Her work in these areas includes several presentations at national conferences, publications in refereed journals, and service within professional organizations. 



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