Six months after Alpha Go’s stunning victory, I went to Shanghai to see firsthand how China’s schools can give them the edge. In 2013 the city’s teenagers gained global renown when they topped the charts in the PISA tests administered every three years by the OECD to see which country’s kids are the smartest in the world. Aged 15, Shanghai students were on average three full years ahead of their counterparts in the UK or US in maths and one-and-a-half years ahead in science. Nowhere in the world made more of their kids’ talent.
At Wanhangdu Road Primary School a mural of a spacecraft urged students to “Come to participate!” and “March to the future!”. In a classroom on the second floor, thirty kids in matching sailor outfits joined in as seven-year-old Selena led a rendition of the school song. Then they jumped into the day’s topic: how could we use number lines to express fractions? In bursts of one to five minutes in length the young teacher ping-ponged students through a variety of short “I do, you do” activities designed to layer the learning of the concept throughout the class, ensuring the kids practiced as much as possible. This was the famous Shanghai approach. They called it mastery learning.
In the staffroom later, a group of maths teachers explained how it worked. Lessons lasted just 35 minutes in order to optimise student concentration. The activities were chunked into short blocks and a variety of media and approaches used to maximise student opportunities to gain understanding, which was achieved through drilling and repetition. Each class began with a few minutes of stretching, singing or dancing in order to boost brain-power.
Teachers, too, were expected to be learners. Unlike in the UK, where, when I began to teach a decade ago, you might be working on full-stops with eleven-year-olds then taking eighteen-year-olds through the finer points of poetry, teachers in Shanghai specialised not only in a subject area, but also an age-group. This meant that they might teach the same lesson multiple times, getting steadily better at doing so throughout their careers. Lest this become dullingly repetitive, they were allocated 240 hours a year in which to improve their practice. The aim? Perfection.
Shanghai’s success owed a lot to Confucian tradition, but it fitted precisely the best contemporary understanding of how expertise is developed. In his book Why Don’t Kids Like School? cognitive Dan Willingham explains that complex mental skills like creativity and critical thinking depend on our first having mastered the simple stuff. Memorisation and repetition of the basics serve to lay down the neural architecture that creates automaticity of thought, ultimately freeing up space in our working memory to think big. The result: a proven approach for growing science and technology know-how.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at China’s children are its secret weapon in the global AI arms race | WIRED UK