Saturday, December 11, 2010

How Shanghai dominated the international student achievement test

On the most recent PISA international student assessment tests, Shanghai, China took the top spot in all three subject areas—reading, math, and science.

Here's how Shanghai, the top performer, gets its students to achieve:
When the results of an international education assessment put Shanghai and several other Asian participants ahead of the US and much of Western Europe, many Americans were shocked. ...

Shanghai trounced the OECD average: in reading, it got a 556, versus a 493 OECD average; in science, the score was 575 versus 501; and in math, there was a difference of more than 100 points – a 600 in Shanghai versus a 496 average. ... The results left many observers with one question: How did they do it? ...

Experts ascribe Shanghai’s success to China's assessment that academic achievement is foremost the result of hard work rather than a good teacher or innate talent.

“Students not only work harder, but they attribute their academic success to their own work,” says James Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA who has conducted research on the Chinese educational system. “Chinese students say the most important factor is studying hard. They really believe that’s the root of success in learning.”

That emphasis on hard work is complemented by several other key practices: active engagement by parents, early efforts to build up attention spans, and families' emphasis on spending long hours in school and on homework while doing little else. ...

Dr. Miller, a longtime observer of the Chinese educational system, has seen sweeping differences in the classroom.

In one study, he sat in first-grade math classes in the US and in Beijing and tracked the number of students who were paying attention throughout the lesson. At the end, about 90 percent of Chinese first graders were still following the lesson. Only about half of the Americans were.

The phenomenon was noted in the PISA report as well: “Typically in a Shanghai classroom, students are fully occupied and fully engaged. Non-attentive students are not tolerated,” it said.

The difference in instructional techniques plays a big role, Miller says. Chinese teachers tended to spend a long time giving instructions in the beginning, while American teachers gave cursory instructions then corrected students as the lesson continued. American students’ attention wandered when they became confused.

Another difference, particularly in math instruction, stood out to both Dr. Stigler and Miller. The US teaches procedurally in math, they noted – repetition of the same procedures until a student can remember reflexively how to solve a particular type of math problem. In China, students are encouraged to understand the connections between each step of the problem so that they can think their way through them, even if the order is forgotten.

In the US, we “do things over and over again until they sink in,” Miller says. “You don’t really know something until you can explain why you do this, why you don’t do that.”

Once one student in the classroom explains a problem correctly, the next student has to explain it, too. That is often repeated until most or all of the students can confidently work their way through a problem, Miller says. It’s a bit different from the US practice of calling on one or two raised hands, then moving on.

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