Teacher Q&A: Maths education in Shanghai

In August of this year, finalist teams from the International Mathematical Modeling Challenge (IMMC) – an annual global challenge where students are given a real-world mathematical problem to solve – travelled from across the globe to attend an awards ceremony in Australia. We sat down with the visiting teacher from Shanghai to find out more about how the subject is taught in his school setting.

Xiaming Chen is a Mathematics teacher at Shanghai Experimental School (SES), a primary and secondary school. Standard education in Shanghai takes 12 years to complete, but some students at SES are able to complete their education in 10 years, meaning they can graduate at age 15 or 16. Chen says there is a strong focus at SES on mathematical modelling and the school provides numerous opportunities for students to extend themselves.

Can you describe your school setting?

Our school runs on a 10 year education system. It's broken up into year sections of four, three and three [years]. There are four years of primary school, three years of junior school and three years of senior school. In primary school, the beginning, we take in 60 students; in the junior school we take in 110 students; and in the senior school we take in 100 students.

In the senior school we have three different ‘lengths' for students, which is either 10 years, 11 years or 12 years of schooling. In my Mathematics class, we have all three groups of students in one class. So, our lessons are different to other lessons at other schools.

Is there a Mathematics initiative that's been particularly successful at your school?

We need to protect and encourage the students' curiosity and their social ability. To do this, in 2011, we built a special Mathematics class of about 44 students. They have one afternoon per week to do what they like. And now, seven years on, 50 per cent of students are in this class.

For all the students, our mathematical modelling lessons are different, because the ability of the student is different. The same lesson might be difficult for some students or too easy for some students. So we built four parts to the lesson. The first part we call the primary part, which is the text book instruction. All the students must do the problem in the text book, and about 70 or 80 per cent of students need to do something about extending the problem in the text book. For example, a real-world mathematics problem might be a ‘city taxi' problem. Solving the city taxi problem in the primary part is very easy, but if you add something more it may be very difficult.

The IMMC asks students to consider real-world mathematics. Is relating mathematics to real-world situations something that you do often in mathematics classes at your school?

[We also have a] mathematical modelling special learning group for the students who can extend the problem [given in class]. They can do more. They want to do more. So, in the afternoon, for the whole afternoon, they do this – for about four hours in one week. Sometimes they will do more work, and stay until about 8 o'clock. The group who entered the International Mathematical Modelling Challenge (IMMC) also did this.

Xiaming Chen was the team advisor for the meritorious Shanghai IMMC team. The IMMC is a competition open to secondary students from around the globe. Each year, a real-world mathematical scenario is given to teams (of up to four students) to solve in just five days. The 2018 problem was centred on choosing ‘the best hospital' for non-emergency treatment. Read more about the 2018 challenge and how teams from Australia tackled the problem by clicking on the links.

Thinking about your classroom setting: how do you seek to ensure students are engaged and challenged?

For IMMC 2019 registration information, visit their website.