Shanghai-Style Mathematics: Essential Reform Or Irrelevant Fad?
Copying teaching methods from different cultures risks deflecting attention from deeper systemic flaws.

The globalisation of education is an ever-intensifying trend, so the news that England is forging ahead with a scheme to teach children mathematics along 'Oriental' lines comes as no surprise: the performance of East Asian entities in twenty-first century international education rankings – not least those pertaining to mathematics – has been consistently stellar. Conversely, English secondary school students aged fifteen are a full three years behind their Shanghai counterparts in their ability to solve maths problems.

This is a gap-cum-chasm, and it is quite understandable that serious action is being taken to try and fill it: £41m of funding is being allocated to provide textbooks and training for two teachers in each of 8,000 English primary schools – 50% of all such schools in the country. Although the scheme is voluntary, take-up of the so-called Shanghai 'mastery' approach is implicitly expected to be high. The move represents nothing less than a paradigm shift in the teaching of mathematics in one of the oldest modern public education systems in the world.

However, as dynamic as this Department for Education initiative appears, it may come to exemplify the dangers of cutting and pasting best educational practice from other cultures without fully comprehending what actually makes them so successful. East Asia's emphasis on 'pure' mathematics may well be a factor that explains its attainment levels in this domain. But merely drilling children in times tables – while valuable – is not a magic formula for mathematical genius. In fact, there are three other and perhaps far more salient reasons why this region shines academically – and which may be much more difficult to replicate:

1. Domestic Discipline. As most children of East (and indeed South) Asian parents will testify, there is a longstanding culture of parental tuition within the home: woe betide the offspring who refuses to cooperate with their mother's demands to study – particularly (though not exclusively) mathematics – at a time when children of many other backgrounds are degenerating in front of the television or consuming social media. This 'tiger mothering' is not necessarily a natural 'fit' with (post-)modern sensibilities, but it is undeniably decisive when it comes to getting higher grades.

2. Cultural Expectations. Following on from (1), academic education as a whole is wildly venerated in East Asian culture: as Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell Nordström note in their classic 2000 work Funky Business: Talent Makes Capital Dance, many people in that region start setting money aside for their children's education before they are even married. In this context, rote recitation of mathematical standards is simply expected – as is scholastic excellence more generally. 

3. A Denied Environment. The comparative underperformance of English fifteen-year-olds may be explained at least as much by the social challenges British teenagers are typically confronted with: a stunning c.75% of females in the 13-17 age category have experienced emotional abuse, with 27% reporting being the victim of sexual violence; alcohol and drug usage is significantly higher compared to their East Asian contemporaries. Until these kind of problems are addressed, copying teaching methods in any subject will always risk being perceived as essentially peripheral.