Top-performing Asian countries use the ‘mastery approach’ to teach math in schools — and now it’s spreading

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Many students in Shanghai, China, are taught math using the mastery approach.
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Getty / Guang Niu

The predominantly Asian approach to teaching mathematics in schools, called the “mastery approach,” is spreading, largely due to the fact these countries are high-performers on international tests.

For example, half of primary schools in England are getting £41 million (roughly $54 million) over the next four years to teach the method, according to the UK government.

It’s a vast departure for the UK, that, like the US, has embraced a different method for teaching math: the “mindset approach.”

The mastery approach is used predominantly in South Asia and is particularly prevalent in Shanghai, China, and Singapore.

Under the mastery approach, students learn a specific concept before moving on to more complex ideas, in a rigidly linear progression, as Alexei Vernitski, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex, wrote for The Conversation.

When using the mastery approach in Shanghai, students aren’t broken into separate groups depending on their perceived intellectual abilities. Instead, students all perform the same work at the same time before mastering and advancing to the next concept together.

By contrast, the mindset approach aims to teach students to have a more intuitive understanding of math concepts and starts with a broader concept before breaking down a math problem into the specific steps for solving.

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Most schools in the US, and previously in the UK, use the mindset approach.
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REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

For example, “A mindset-approach teacher can introduce addition via joining two heaps of cardboard counters (or other props) together, explore properties of addition via activities, and only then break the process of adding numbers into procedural steps,” Vernitski explained.

The mastery-approach teaching model has been steadily gaining traction in the UK. In 2015, 30 teachers from Shanghai, China, were flown to the UK by the Department for Education to teach the mastery approach to English teachers.

The Guardian detailed the experience that one London-based school, Fox School, had when Shanghai teacher Lilianjie Lu, brought the mastery approach into a classroom of 7- and 8-year-old students:

“Lu begins by asking the children to read out the fractions on the screen. One child gives the answer – ‘a half’ – then the rest of the children repeat. Another child identifies a third, everyone repeats, a quarter, and so on.”

“At the end of this part of the lesson the children give themselves a clap – not a boisterous round of applause with whoops and cheers, but five precise claps in a set rhythm. Then the children read the fractions out all over again before Lu moves on to how to write fractions.”

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The mastery approach tends to use repetition to teach concepts.
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Manchester University Maths/flickr

The lessons taught in the mastery approach classroom were also much shorter than normal lessons in UK classrooms, with about 35 minutes of lesson time followed by 15 minutes of playtime, The Guardian reported.

“There’s a lot of chanting and recitation which to our English ears seems a bit formulaic,” Ben McMullen, deputy head at Fox School, told The Guardian. “But it’s a way of embedding that understanding.”

Additionally, a 2015 study of 140 schools in the UK by the UCL Institute of Education and Cambridge University found that the mastery approach improved the speed with which students learned math skills.

Aside from data, the mastery approach has also had wide buy-in from other education experts in the UK.

“Countries at the top of the table for attainment in mathematics education employ a mastery approach to teaching mathematics,” Charlie Stripp, the director of the UK’s National Center for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, wrote on the organization’s website.

“Teachers in these countries do not differentiate their maths teaching by restricting the mathematics that ‘weaker’ children experience, whilst encouraging ‘able’ children to ‘get ahead’ through extension tasks,” he continued.

Stripp is likely referring to results of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The PISA exam is a worldwide study conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It measures 15-year-olds in 65 countries in math, science, and reading.

The 2012 PISA results, the most recent data available (the 2015 results are due to be released in December 2016), show that Asian countries far outperformed the UK and US in mathematics.

China – broken into the distinctions of Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong – and Singapore, swept the top four slots. The UK ranked 24th on the list, and the US came in at 35th.

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OECD

But not all education professionals are sold on the mastery approach. Ruth Merttens, professor of primary education at University of St Mark and St John, thinks that pointing solely to the mastery approach as the reason for high achievement overlooks the idea that other factors may be at play.

“We don’t know what elements of Shanghai’s education produces good mathematics education,” she wrote in The Guardian. “One thing to note, however, is that Chinese teachers have a five-year education training, specifically targeted at teaching primary children, whereas we have systematically cut the time we give to trainee teachers,” she continued.

Similarly, there are experts who say that Chinese students’ successes on standardized testing shouldn’t be heralded as evidence that Chinese students are more successful than students in other countries.

For example, author Yong Zhao’s book, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” takes a critical look at major flaws in China’s education system.

“Chinese education produces excellent test scores, a short-term outcome that can be achieved by rote memorization and hard work,” writes Zhao, who grew up in China and taught there. “But like the Chinese government itself, it does not produce a citizenry of diverse, creative, and innovative talent.”

The Chinese educational system excels at transmitting a narrow amount of content and prescribed skills that its students must master, Zhao argues.

Still, with mounting pressure for the US and UK to improve their standing on international math exams, the question of whether they should grow closer to the mastery approach will likely continue.