Ellie Terry and Aneal Helms weren’t your typical American tourists. They hadn’t come to see the Great Wall, Bird’s Nest, or Terracotta warriors. As they packed for a three-week tour through China, they had other sightseeing goals in mind: They wanted to visit as many high school math classrooms as possible.
Terry, 26, and Helms, 27, are high school math teachers in New York City. They work in classrooms that are ethnically and economically diverse, and in the three years since they began teaching, they’ve noticed a striking pattern. At every grade level, their Chinese-Amer ican students seem to work harder – and perform better – than the other students in class.
“Twenty percent of my students are Chinese-American,” says Terry. “And they fill up all my top math classes.”
The teachers didn’t believe that their Chinese students were naturally smarter than the other students. But how could they explain the disparity they witnessed in their classrooms? Their observations suggested that the students from Chinese backgrounds were working with a different set of standards and expectations than their classmates.
Terry and Helms wanted to know more about the cultural environment that could produce such high-achieving students. So they decided to trace the phenomenon directly to its source, applying for a fellowship to study math education in China.
Terry and Helms hoped they would observe successful Chinese teaching methods that they could take back to the United States and apply to their own teaching. Their journey took them through Hong Kong, Guilin, Yangshuo, Chengdu, Xi’an and Beijing.
In the US, we often use poverty as an excuse for poor math performance…there’s an expectation that economically disadvantaged students will not do as well… In China, there are no such excuses.” – Ellie Terry, High school math teacher
In each city, Terry and Helms sought out teachers and students to talk to and learn from. They relied on contacts they’d made in the United States, relatives of former students, and friendly strangers.
“Everyone knows someone who’s a teacher,” Helms says. “So we’d say, ‘Hey, do you know any teachers we can talk to? Can we visit their schools? Is there someone who can translate?’” The method was surprisingly successful.
They began their trip in Hong Kong with a visit to Summerbridge, a non-profit program that serves economically disadvantaged children. Summerbridge relies on a student-to-student learning model, with older, advanced students serving as mentors to students at lower levels.
In New York, they often work with students who, like the Summerbridge Hong Kong participants, come from poor families with limited English-language skills.
“In the US, we often use poverty as an excuse for poor math performance,” Terry says. “There’s an expectation that economically disadvantaged students will not do as well.” She noted that students and their families help to perpetuate this attitude, and school administrations rarely seem to challenge it. “In China,” she says, “there are no such excuses.”
Indeed, rather than seeing poverty as a barrier to their success, Chinese students may view it as a powerful motivation to excel. According to Lian Siqing, a professor of mathematics at Capital Normal University in Beijing: “Students consider math extremely important, because it’s relevant for higher education and can help them to get a job. Math skills are also key to the development of the Chinese economy.”
For these students, developing strong mathematical skills may seem like both a personal and patriotic duty: If they are successful, they can help to pull their families out of poverty while furthering the prosperity of the nation.
Throughout their travels, the women were also struck by the sense of pride that Chinese students took from their academic achievements.
Professor Lian believes that Chinese philosophical traditions have instilled in modern students a desire to excel academically. “Our methods can be traced back to the time of Confucius,” he says. Confucianism places high value on learning and knowledge.
Lian has spent time in the United States and observed the contrast of values between the two countries. “In the US, schools and society focus on the overall development of the student,” he says. “They pay more attention to those who show strong performances in the arts or sports, rather than in math or science.”
The New York teachers agree. “In the US, the top student is not exactly the coolest kid in the class,” Terry remarks ruefully.
Terry and Helms observed a consistent narrative unfolding as they traveled across China. “We kept hearing the adjectives ‘shame’, ‘strict’, and ‘pressure’,” they say. Teachers and students alike commented on the intensity of the Chinese education system and the pressure to excel, which drives students to devote much of their free time to practice and review.
The New York teachers were impressed by the energy and determination of the students they met. Yet they couldn’t help wondering if there was something mechanical about their learning. “Their fundamentals are rock-solid,” Helms says. “But many people we’ve talked to here say that students solve the problems without really knowing why they’re solving them, the way that they’re solving them.”
In the classrooms they visited in China, students always sat in orderly rows and were called upon to answer questions one at a time. By contrast, in their New York classrooms, teachers arrange their students in small groups and encourage them to work in teams to find answers. Their students may not always arrive at the correct answer, but – whether they’re aware of it or not – they’re putting another valuable skill into practice as they struggle for a solution. They are learning how to think creatively, testing and experimenting with different strategies.
Lian concurs with the assessment that group work has not been a focus of China’s math education historically. But he says that the Education Ministry, which is charged with designing and implementing a unified teaching philosophy across China, is currently addressing that issue.
“China’s math teaching authorities are looking for ways to improve students’ creative and active thinking,” he says. “We’ve started to pay attention to the idea of cooperation among students.”
Chinese math teaching philosophy will continue to focus on individual achievement. The strongest teams, after all, are comprised of strong individuals. “Without individual thinking,” Lian says, “effective collaboration would be almost impossible.”
Terry says her trip to China made her realize that “students are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. If we raise our expectations, they will rise to meet them.”
“There’s a lot to be said for classroom culture,” she says. “Making it an academic-minded place, using peer pressure in a positive way to raise academic achievement.”
Helms, meanwhile, is pondering how to bring together the best of both worlds. “If we could somehow merge the intense cultural expectation and non-stop practice of the Chinese education system with the creativity and discovery model of the American education system, we’d have some really incredible thinkers and problem solvers in this world,” she says.
“Now, we just need to figure out how to do that.”