The class has no rules written on the blackboard or complicated calculations. Students sit in groups, absorbed in a wooden block puzzle, sometimes rotating the blocks and sometimes discussing.
This is a math class in Beijing’s Dongtiejiangying No 1 Primary School.
The math teacher introduces the concept of pentominoes – an arrangement of five squares joined along their edges – and then guides the students to explore 12 different shapes.
“The pentominoes look simple, but together they can be transformed into thousands of shapes. Today we start with building a big rectangle,” says Ren Jingxia, the teacher.
Ren says the school has introduced several educational toys into experimental math classes. They focus on logic and problem-solving instead of teacher instructions. The students have reacted positively to the interactive lessons.
“We have set up a work group on developing logical thinking and will promote experimental math classes in all grades to enhance students’ interest in math,” Ren said.
Tian Lili, a senior teacher in Beijing who has observed the class, said the class breaks the stereotype of math as boring and dull.
“Math can be fun. We are not training expert puzzle players, but we can combine puzzles with knowledge. The teacher might ask students to explore the surface area, the perimeter and the volume of the pentominoes,” Tian said.
She suggests the philosophy of learning through play can be adopted throughout math education.
“I think it’s important to relate math to real-life projects that students might be more engaged in. When they realize that math is everywhere and part of daily life, they find pleasure in learning.”
Associate Professor Fang Yunjia of Capital Normal University said that China’s math education is gradually changing to a greater emphasis on practical application and thinking ability.
Chinese students have a reputation for quantitative skills and have featured in international education studies. A group of British education officials visited to Shanghai to study Chinese math teaching methods in 2014. The British government later launched a project to import Chinese math teachers and Chinese-style math lessons to British schools to help improve math education.
Fang’s extensive research on teaching methods and class organization in many countries found that Chinese math classes are teacher-centered and allow less time for student input, while classes in some Western countries focus on real-life projects and use cooperative groups to encourage active participation.
“These elements, which are lacking in Chinese classes, deserve our attention and can be used in China’s math education,” Fang says.
Mobby is a training agency that focuses on the development of children’s thinking ability. It offers courses for children aged 3 to 8, helping them learn early math skills by building on their natural curiosity and having fun.
According to Hong Yang, head of Mobby, the popularity of the courses reflects society’s changing expectations of math education.
“Parents do not want traditional methods to teach their kids math, such as multiplication tables. They hope their kids can develop mathematical thinking and appreciate the fun of math through games and interaction,” Hong said.