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Learning maths in China – interview with Dr Dongchen Zhao – part 1

Learning maths in China - interview with Dr Dongchen Zhao
(Christian:) Welcome Dr. Zhao. We want to add some nice videos to this course to explain actually basically have experiences and hear experiences from people who have experienced primary Chinese mathematics classrooms first-hand. Can you tell me something about yourself and also your relationship with primary mathematics classrooms in China? (Dr.
Zhao:) Okay. it’s my pleasure to have this interview. My name is Dongchen Zhao. I come from China. As a teaching and research staff, I work in the School of Education in Harbin Normal University. My research, my current research focuses on the classroom, mathematics classroom study and the teachers knowledge development study. (Christian:) Okay, so quite an extensive experience from young to now studying these classrooms. Do you have the impression that primary classrooms have changed over time in China, compared with when you were there and now how you’re studying them? (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes, sure. Since I graduated from primary school, many changes have taken place. Among all of these changes, the biggest one in my view would be the mathematics curriculum reform since 2001. (Christian:) And it’s still the same now? (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes, the same now. (Christian: Okay.) The new curriculum is under implementing now. (Christian:) Okay, so that’s interesting to hear how stable the curriculum is, if it’s still the same one from 2001. Because I would say that many countries they look at Asia and well these courses of course look at Asia, and we hear a lot about Chinese primary mathematics classrooms, and what the good things are, what things are different perhaps, can you tell me something about what you see as the main features of primary mathematics classrooms in China? (Dr.
Zhao:) Alright. As we discussing the features of Chinese mathematics classroom, one background I should mention is the big class size. According to reports by OECD in 2014, the average number of students in Chinese Mathematics, in Chinese classroom including the mathematics classroom, the size is 37, is very big. (Christian: Yes.) Under this situation, teacher instructs lots of students. So teachers should pay attention to other students. However, teachers have no time to instruct each student, to tutor them one by one. That means the whole class activity, whole class public activity would be the main method to teach students. (Christian:) So the whole classroom instruction. (Dr.
Zhao:) It’s really the first feature of Chinese mathematics classroom. (Christian:) Does this happen one thing I’ve also heard is that perhaps the number of hours is relatively limited on on a day, how then does a Chinese teacher let’s say if there is a student who struggles a little bit, how would a Chinese teacher give attention to that student would that be after classes or can you say something about that? (Dr.
Zhao:) Okay. It’s very difficult for teacher to concentrate the students’ attention to what they are teaching and learning. However, in China the classroom discipline is not very good. It’s not very bad. It’s good. In my opinion, the reason maybe lies in two sides. On one hand, the primary school students are more willing to take teachers’ reasonable advice and requirement. On the other hand, maybe the relationship between teacher and student could bring more convenience for teacher manage the classroom. In China, many students think like the classroom is a solemn place to learn something. And they should show their respects to their teachers.
A very typical example is in each class at the beginning students should stand up and say hello to teachers, and they should stand up to say goodbye at the end of the class. (Christian:) Okay, so the classroom discipline seems to be an important role in the sort of really whole relationship between the teacher and the students. Is that, I’m just curious is this something that also has changed over time, because so for example I know in Japan I’ve heard people say, well 20 years ago students were more polite than they are now because there’re changes in society. How is that in China? (Dr.
Zhao:) According to my investigation in the past 10 years, including in the past 3 or 5 years, what I have seen is the same as I mentioned a moment ago. (Christian:) Another thing that we often hear about and I think it causes a lot of discussion in many many countries is exams, high stakes, low stakes, admissions to maybe higher education and other types of schooling. I, of course we’re talking about primary school, but you could say that a system starts in primary school of course. Can you say something about that in relation to primary schools in China? (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes, in the whole system of education in China, is under the pressure of examination. The biggest pressure is from the entrance examination for higher education. The primary school also cannot (be) outside the shadow of this pressure. (Christian:) Even so early on, (Dr. Zhao: Yeah.)

In this second interview we talk with Dr Dongchen Zhao.

This is part 1 of the interview.

Dongchen Zhao is research and teaching staff in the School of Education, Harbin Normal University, China. His research interests focus on the mathematics classroom practice and teachers’ knowledge development. Between August 2017 and August 2018, he has been at the University of Southampton as a visiting academic. He received his primary school education in a small village in northeastern China in the 1980s. He received his master’s degree and doctoral degree in Northeast Normal University, China. Both his master thesis and PhD dissertation were about China’s primary school mathematics classrooms.

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