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Learning maths in China – interview with Dr Dongchen Zhao – part 2

Learning maths in China - interview with Dr Dongchen Zhao
There already is the idea that at 17,18 you need to go to higher education. (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes. So the teachers will put much effort in teaching for Two Basics in China, that means basic knowledge and basic skills. Because the Two Basics is the main content of the examination. (Christian:) I think in the first part of the course, or the first course we indeed we talked about the Two Basics and how practice makes perfect and that you need a solid foundation. I think that’s what you mean? (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes, yes. (Christian:) How does this influence the way students feel in school? Because I imagine that if you, if exams are so important, then and teachers feel this as well, that students also feel this in primary education or not so much? (Dr.
Zhao:) When I was a primary school student, I think everything is OK for me. Including the teaching method, and in the homework and the practice in the class. But I don’t know how the student, the current students feel. But I should mention another feature, another feature of Chinese mathematics classroom is the homework and the practice. Many Chinese mathematics educators believe that practice makes perfect. So when they teach a new content, they will give the opportunity to student to practice what they have learned. That means the lesson structure will appear with new content, practice, next new content and next practice, and so on. So nearly most of the new content is accompanied with practice.
Besides the practice in the lesson, teacher also assigns homework to students. (Christian:) Primary school as well? (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes, yes. Chinese and mathematics are very important subjects for students, for primary students. So nearly every student has mathematics homework every day. And teacher will check and correct students’ homework in the second day. (Christian:) So quite a lot of marking as well? (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes, as much workload for teacher. So both the practice and the homework is a good method to consolidate students’ learning, and it is also an effective feedback method for teacher to know the students’ learning progress. (Christian:) And it’s, yes now I can see that so in one picture that sometimes is being sketched of Asian countries that you do a lot of practice. I say you, but in China there is a lot of practice. But how do you make sure that there is some deeper understanding of mathematics as well? How is that done in China, is that something that then follows automatically, or are there other things that Chinese teachers do? (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes, Chinese teachers do put much attention to students’ understanding in mathematics. As I know, a very popular method named ‘Teaching only the essential and ensure plenty of practice’ is very popular for Chinese teachers. That means the teacher will put much attention to the detailed explanation of a new content. Especially when they teach the key points and difficult points to the students, they always decompose the key point or difficult point into several parts with different levels from low to high, to have students understand and master the point step by step. (Christian:) So it’s really a case that they all go hand-in-hand.
So you’ve got lots of practice, lots of knowledge, lots of skills, and also understanding and they are all together in the Chinese mathematics classrooms. (Dr.
Zhao:) Yes. (Christian:) Do textbooks play a role in this as well, and how is the culture regarding textbooks in China? (Dr.
Zhao:) You mentioned a very big feature of Chinese mathematics classroom. In China, we have unified the curriculum and textbook. The Ministry of Education issue the curriculum and standards, and some professional institutions develop the textbook and publish it for school selection and use. So in every classroom, textbook is available for both teachers’ teaching and students’ learning. Of course, the textbook is only a reference for teacher, not all of the references. For those teachers who think it is necessary and they have the confidence in developing other resources, they can show their creativity in developing teaching resources. However, if teachers have not time, and she or he is not confident in developing resources, then she or he can use just the textbook.
So the available, availability of textbook has ensured the quality of education to a large extent throughout the country. (Christian:) That is it one textbook the same for all or are there different organisations with different books that they offer? (Dr.
Zhao:) Different sets of textbook. Before 2001, before the curriculum reform, that is one curriculum standard, one set of textbook. However, after the curriculum reform, under the same standards, curriculum standards, there are many sets of textbook developed by different institutions. (Christian:) Schools can choose which one they want. (Dr. Zhao: Yes.)

This is part 2 of the interview with Dr Dongchen Zhao.

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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