I read Dr. Nancy Pine’s book, Educating Young Giants, with great interest. The book is about her observation of classes in China, her discussions with Chinese teachers and parents (mostly through interpreters), and the comparisons she makes to American education. She admits to being ethnocentric at the time of her first visit to China in 1989, but while she could sometimes recognize her own egocentricity, she was not able to fully overcome it. She noticed that in Chinese literature classes, teachers emphasized close reading and digging for the author’s meaning. She felt that Chinese teachers denied students the opportunity to create personal meaning from the literature they read. Although her research in China centered on elementary literacy development, as a former math major (page 41), she became interested in observing elementary math classes. As everyone who has ever observed Chinese math classes has reported (see, for a few of many examples, Harold Stevenson, James Stigler, Liping Ma), she, too, witnessed superior teaching skill.
I have been teaching math in China for the last several years, and I taught in Japan for nearly two decades. I speak both Japanese and Mandarin. Nancy Pine came to appreciate that Chinese teachers teach mathematics, but “most U.S. ” (page 45). Dr. Pine is being generous. U.S. teachers teach non-math, specifically routines, tricks and shortcuts, but call it math on the misconception that if numbers are running around, it must be math. Chinese teachers spend a significant amount of time considering a relatively simple math problem from every conceivable angle. The students probably already know the “answer” and that is precisely the advantage of using an easy problem. Because they already know the outcome, they can concentrate on the process, the concept-building. Once the concept is solid, their homework includes problems that American students eventually spiral to. She is admitting that she was great at non-math, but weak at mathematics itself.
She believes it is because American teachers are generalists who must teach every subject, while Chinese teachers are specialists who teach only one subject. I would like to suggest that being a generalist or a specialist has nothing to do with it. You see, regardless of professional training or subject matter courses, teachers tend to teach the way they were taught. The strident calls for teachers to take more subject matter courses is misplaced. Simply learning more and more non-math will not improve teaching ability. Okay, how about we reteach math at the university level? I tried to do exactly that, only to meet with terrible resistance. “We don’t want to know why the math works,” my students complained, “Just tell us how to get the answer.” Fine, let’s at least teach those students who aspire to become elementary teachers. The main reason that Chinese students do so well in international math tests is because they actually learn math in school. American do not. Therefore, the reasons critics cite (specially selected students, lower poverty rates, rote learning, etc) miss the point.
What critics are saying is that due to circumstances beyond our control, American students can never compete with Chinese students. I call baloney. If we would actually teach math in our schools, our students could compete just fine. Next: examples of non-math teaching I encountered in a child’s algebra class. “What do I do with all those plus signs?” she wailed. What did you do with the other ones? I flipped them (referring to a mat-and-tile manipulative she is using in class). Even after all that flipping, she still had no idea what was going on. As long as she flips correctly, she can get the right answer without ever understanding how the flipping was supposed to communicate the concept. Dr. Pine realized that the depth of Chinese math learning far surpassed ours. She lauded it in math but lamented it in literacy, saying that teachers denied Chinese children the expression of their own personal opinions. Everywhere I wrote an asterisk I am referring to the Chinese philosophy of math education as evidenced by the textbook presentation of concepts and the implementation I and others have observed in many Chinese classrooms. HOWEVER, honesty compels me to relate that there are a number of Chinese math teachers whose delivery of math concepts is at best cursory.