The history of maths scholarship in China is illustrious, dating back to the second millennium BC, when bamboo rods were arranged to represent the numbers one to 9, and then into columns to represent tens, hundreds and thousands.
The thirteenth century saw another Golden Age, with the establishment of more than 30 prestigious maths schools across the country. Today, China maintains its fierce enthusiasm for mathematics. Since 2000, its nationals have placed top in the International Mathematical Olympiad 13 times, never dropping below third place.
But one 76 year-old educator from Hubei province has newer ideas on how the subject should be taught. In 2015, 12 years after he was made president of the private Chibi Zhengyang Primary School, Wu Zhenqiu rolled out a series of experiments designed to reform the curriculum. Putting together a new textbook that he divided into seven units, he declared that maths classes wouldn’t even start until the third grade (i.e. at eight years-old).
Since receiving warning notices from the local education bureau last month, Wu’s reforms have been heavily scrutinised by netizens. Yet he doesn’t seem fazed by the challenge of condensing six years of maths education into four.
Data from the school shows that the average score in the final exams of the third grade students in his class was 90.1 points, which is 11.5 points higher than the average class in China.
Wu believes that before the introduction of mathematics, students should first undergo a foundational civic education, which he claims as “the root of the Chinese nation”. To cultivate this civic awareness during the first and second grade, the original eight hours of maths classe got replaced with literature, reading and writing, science, sports, art and singing. He says that this improves cognitive and expressive skills from an early age.
Normally, maths textbooks in China start teaching multiplication in the second grade. The method is one of repetition and memorisation, often through phrases invented over two millennia ago. But Wu argues that students must be fully literate before they approach mathematical study; without laying a foundation in oral competence first, teachers are limited in how they explain the meaning of concepts. According to Wu, “the students are blind, the teaching time is delayed, the parents are burdened” which can seriously affect student interest in mathematics.
It isn’t unusual for families in China to push their children academically from a young age. The long-term effects of young children staying up late to complete homework or being dispatched to multiple extra-curricular classes worry some parents – but competition compels them to maintain the trend.
In November 2018, a group led by Professor Yang Xiaowei, director of the Institute of Basic Education Reform and Development of East China Normal University, came to Zhengyang to evaluate Wu’s curriculum. It decided the model had enhanced the children’s learning abilities by alleviating some of the workload and upping their efficiency. But irrespective of Wu’s school being a private institution, deviation from the state curriculum is not permitted and teaching from uncertified textbooks is strictly prohibited.
On September 19, Hu Xinwen, the director of the Education Bureau of Chibi City, went after Wu. The official told reporters that the curriculum and class hours of China’s education system has clear provisions, and that regulations would be strictly enforced.
Wu’s case had come to the bureau’s attention because of complaints from parents, although it seems it was more from people upset that their kids’ scores were lower than those using Wu’s system.
In the face of the netizen frenzy, the case took on national profile, putting pressure on the education bureau, which appeared to have given Wu an earlier nod to pioneer the changes. He has since admitted that the scrutiny of the project has exceeded expectations, although he also argues that it demonstrates just how important education is to people in China. All the same, it looks like his first graders will soon be studying maths again.
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