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Effectiveness of mathematics teaching: the truth about China and England

Zhenzhen Miao David Reynolds

Building on last year’s BERA paper, this year, we are sharing the key findings from the completed EMT project. With more to be found in the paper and the presentation, here we highlight a small part of the complete report.

Interconnections between evaluations and perceptions

Pulling two parts of data collected with six methods, rather surprising findings emerge, challenging what we conventionally believe the English teaching and the Chinese teaching must be. For example, different strands of data and results join each other and suggest that English teachers are in fact pro direct transmission whereas Chinese teachers are pro constructivist. When so many genuinely believe that grouping/setting by “ability” is doing good to children, the study finds English teachers’ heavy use of this approach actually enlarges the performance gap amongst pupils of the same age over time. In the English classroom, the teacher tends to show the right procedure of solving certain problems. Instead of doing so, in the Chinese classroom, the teacher asks lots of process questions to guide the whole class to find the solution(s) themselves through thinking and answering questions, which nurtures metacognitive thinking skills constantly. More are in the paper.

The mainstream thoughts in education

In England, practitioners and policy makers have been heavily influenced by the advocates for progressive and individualised teaching (Central Advisory Council for Education, 1967), a broader curriculum, the superficial likes and dislikes of international comparisons (Alexander, 2012) and the one-sided assertion that pedagogy is merely an individualised and cultural thing (Alexander, 2008). The curriculum needs to be broad, which, nevertheless, cannot be an excuse for the lack of depth and effectiveness of curriculum implementation. The intended content of every subject, including mathematics, should be thoroughly and firmly grasped by children after all efforts have been put in at the system, school and classroom levels.

There will not be any improvement if educational practitioners, researchers and policy makers are ready to play ostrich whenever encountering disappointing outcomes

The danger is not what Pasi Sahlberg superficially calls “GERM” (as applauded by Alexander, 2012). The real danger is the lack of standards on education and its evaluation and the unawareness or ignorance of ineffective educational processes. There will not be any improvement if educational practitioners, researchers and policy makers are ready to play ostrich whenever encountering disappointing outcomes.

It is fine to maintain a broad curriculum (reasonably broad, not simply broader, time is limited). Nonetheless, England should, at the same time, ensure the high quality of teaching and learning of the core subjects – such as English and Mathematics – which form the base of many other subjects and children’s more fulfilling future life in a more advanced world. When children are underperforming in these core subjects, it is time for all educational stakeholders to reflect, research and react on the effectiveness and the improvement of teaching and learning in these subjects. It is as simple as that. To solve the issue, one needs to look at and focus on the issue itself.

Recommendations for England and China

Recommendations based on decades of teaching effectiveness research findings and the EMT project findings are given here for English practitioners and policy makers to consider:

  1. Avoid the utilisation of whole-class lectures;
  2. Increase the proportion of lesson time on whole-class interactions;
  3. Reduce the proportion of lesson time on individual/group work;
  4. Reduce the proportion of lesson time on partial-class interactions;
  5. Enhance teachers’ subject matter and pedagogical content knowledge;
  6. If possible, transform primary teachers into specialist teachers;
  7. Make change in initial teacher education accordingly.

In China, attention should be placed on preserving the current teaching approaches in an increasingly Westernised (Americanised) trend in the country’s education and society and preventing radical change from happening in the classroom. The problem in China’s education does not lie in classroom teaching and learning. It lies in the political, social and cultural domains of the country.



Alexander, R. (2008). Culture, dialogue and learning: notes on an emerging pedagogy. In N. Mercer & S. Hodgkinson (Eds.), Exploring Talk in School (pp. 93-114). London: Sage.

Alexander, R. (2012). Visions of education, roads to reform: the global educational race and the Cambridge Primary Review. Retrieved on 20 July 2015 from

Central Advisory Council for Education. (1967). Children and their primary schools: a report. London: H.M.S.O.