Shanghai days

As I write this, around 35 teachers from Shanghai are heading back home after 2 weeks teaching Maths in our primary schools. In our Maths Hub, around 250 teachers took time out of their classrooms to watch and unpick the mathematical content of a KS1 or KS2 lesson. Combined with a similar-sized group that came in December, maybe 6000-7000 teachers in England have had this opportunity.  It’s been a significant undertaking. Now is a good time to reflect on where we go next and ask the question – was it worth it?

Very good feedback was received from the teachers that came to watch our lessons. Maybe the audience was self-selecting. Maybe those teachers who have years of experience and have “seen it all before” stayed away. Or those who have a strong philosophy about how we should teach children maths which conflicts with their perception of what goes on in Shanghai classrooms didn’t fancy it.  But those who came with an open mind and a sensible level of expectation were inspired and took something away.  We didn’t see perfect lessons.  Language was sometimes an issue but less than you might imagine. The Chinese teachers were not used to teaching the wide range of attainment we see in our classrooms. There was no differentiation in the lessons.  There were usually plenty of adults on hand to help the children, something which is clearly unrealistic in the normal run of things.

What we did see were some carefully constructed lessons from practitioners who focus entirely on Maths teaching.  In a system that asks its teachers to teach 2-3 x 35 minute lessons per day with plenty of time for professional development, that regularly has 10-15 teachers observing and unpicking lessons, it is not surprising that these teachers know their stuff!  We saw the micro-progression building up a solid understanding of underlying concepts. We saw the experience of a mastery approach that has been in place for many years and has percolated down to thousands of teachers. For an excellent description of some of the techniques used read Tim Brogan’s post here.

So a good experience for those involved. But that doesn’t answer the question “was it worth it?” I don’t know the full cost of the exchange. I guess I could do an FoI request to find out, but I’m estimating £3000 x 75, so about £225,000 for the trip.  But the bigger cost was 70 odd teachers being out of their classrooms for 2 weeks.  It seems so hard to carve out enough time to see other teachers in our own schools, let alone travel half way across the world to watch excellent practitioners.  In these times of budget cuts we should be grateful that there is this investment into Maths education.  And it has given a real impetus to CPD for Maths. But I can’t help thinking that an alternative could be 700 teachers spending a day observing excellent practitioners in their local area. Or several thousand teachers having an extra hour to observe an excellent lesson in their own school.  Would this have a greater impact on more children?

The good news is that this sort of “learning from each other” between schools is available through the Maths Hubs Teaching for Mastery programme. This provides schools (Primary and Secondary) with the opportunity to work with up to 6 other schools in their local area in a TRG – a group that meets regularly throughout the year to observe and unpick each others’ lessons as well as working together on lesson design and curriculum planning.  The Maths leader from one of these schools will have received a year of training from NCETM and will be the “Mastery Specialist” but in reality this should be seen as a genuine collaboration between practitioners.  The schools involved receive a reasonable level of funding via the Maths Hubs to cover the time the teachers are out of lessons. To find out more, contact your local Maths Hub.

We have gained a lot from this exchange, but I wonder if we are hitting diminishing returns to go for a fourth year in a row.  There are now enough people around the country who have experience of what happens in Shanghai classrooms.  The focus should be squarely on helping our teachers adapt what we have seen for the English classroom.   To take the best bits and meld them into currently existing good practice. The need now is to provide more teachers with the time to undertake high quality collaborative lesson design and to learn from each other by observing each other. This is what really makes the difference in Shanghai and this is what will make the difference here.



8 thoughts on “Shanghai days”

  1. From what you’ve seen and been told about, what aspects of good practice do you think could be trialled here, given the different way a teacher’s day is made up? I hadn’t realised there had been so many more visits, I wish we could have access to lots of videos of classrooms and different practice. Easier to watch in groups, pause/discuss/rewind/dissect. Maybe not helping with cost though!


      1. Thanks for adding this link. I was speaking to Debbie Morgan today, she suggested this too! I see this as us creating a coherent and consistent UK version of teaching for Mastery. “Taking best bits” was maybe not the best way to describe that process.


  2. Thank you for your thoughts on the exchange, Mark. It is interesting to hear the perspective of teachers who have been involved and hopefully gives an insight to the majority of teachers who have not had the opportunity. The more that people blog about this, they better.

    Clearly, watching any teacher teach is a privilege and there is always something that can be learned, reflected upon, discussed and debated. Watching other people teach and being able to explore their thinking is one of the best types of CPD around, which is why we are so keen on Lesson Study at Teacher Development Trust (see for more information).

    Regardless of where the teacher is from and what their experience is, we can learn from what we see as well as impart our own experience and knowledge to the colleague who has delivered.

    I have the great joy of watching teaching all around the world. The teachers who have visited as part of this exchange have given us a great gift of allowing busy teachers, who can’t travel to other schools, the chance to see different approaches.

    This is, of course, also true of going to watch a colleague next door, down the road or in another town in England.

    The problem I see with the current initiative is that it is not really taking the issue seriously. Countries such as Japan, Singapore and China have taken a very long-term and serious approach to implementing a mastery model. It takes a huge amount of time, but the benefits (as shown repeatedly by Guskey et al) can be great.

    Here, we have teachers taking part in very minor CPD interventions. You say that teachers have had a whole year of CPD on mastery, but this isn’t really the case. In fact, the formal training is a matter of days rather than a year.

    In many of the Pacific rim countries, teachers are considered ‘novice’ in their first 10 years of teaching. That is to say, they take the fact that learning about teaching is complex, demanding and takes a long time with a huge amount of input.

    What we are doing here is not taking the issue seriously. The nature of the education system in the UK necessitates short-term-ism. Trying to create quick wins.

    I have no doubt that the teachers involved in the current initiatives will take away useful ideas and be able to use them in their practice.

    However, what we know about CPD is, unless it is long-term, sustained and high quality, it does not become embedded in practice. Norms and biases come back to the fore and the learning – though useful in the short term – becomes diluted or lost.

    One cannot become an expert in teaching for mastery after a minor course, delivered over one year.

    Also, one cannot become an expert in teaching for mastery if those delivering the CPD are not themselves experts.

    A problem we have in the UK, as a profession, is not being brave enough to say, ‘I don’t know about this yet, I’m still learning’.

    So, we have an initiative where those who have had superficial training in a mastery approach are then training a next cohort. I am already witnessing the Chinese whisper effect, where the messaging is getting watered down (or personal ideologies and biases are changing the story).

    I agree with you that there is much benefit to working with schools here locally and that we can learn from each other.

    However, what I would really like to see is a 10-year plan for moving the dominant model of education in England to a mastery model. It really does take that long. We need to start with experts, training teachers over a very long time, engaged with Lesson Study to help accelerate, and slowly rolling out.

    We could design a Master’s Degree programme with accreditation as a teaching for mastery expert, say.

    Unless we seriously higher the bar and demand more, we will be left with piecemeal, superficial CPD that causes more disruption and confusion that it does benefit.


  3. I think you bit upon a good point; now is the time to take what we have seen and make it work for us. Top quality CPD often requires expert input at the beginning, but the real acid test of whether it will have lasting impact is the teachers that have had the input being able to take it, work with it, collaborate around it, and continually re-visit it. I hope the TRG groups that have sprung up get the time and space to work with the input properly, but I suspect that ultimaty cost to schools for release might limit this a bit.


  4. Sue Pope and I wrote an article in MT 250 about two Shanghai lessons we saw in a secondary school in Manchester. The article can be freely downloaded from my website: I also shared several emails with Debbie Morgan based upon my analysis of Claire’s Y4 lesson and the analysis I had posted on the NCETM website. If anyone would like a copy of this analysis please contact me on:


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