The following article comes from Head of School Daniel Polak, who shares his life-changing experience of teaching in China.

I promised my colleagues I wouldn’t change. “I’m not going to come back insisting on rows and textbooks,” I laughed as I left my school for the last time. I was destined for Shanghai with over 70 other Mastery Specialists from all over the country.

It’s a twelve-hour flight to Shanghai. That’s a lot of time to discuss just exactly how we thought Shanghai ended up on the peak of the PISA tables each year. Culture and educational policy were under microscopic analysis before we stood on Chinese soil. We knew it couldn’t be replicated. We knew that despite the formidable attainment of their children, they will have sacrificed art, creativity, the heart and soul of teaching. Why we all came into the profession in the first place.

We were wrong. Or at least, on the evidence I have from our experiences, we weren’t close to being right. We all split into 40 schools and came back to the hotel each night ablaze with ideas about our experiences. After my first day in school, the first question I asked everyone I spoke to was: did you see the best maths lesson you’ve ever seen today? They all answered in the affirmative. What happened over the next two weeks fundamentally changed what I thought about education. It couldn’t be justly summarised in this piece, but I want to give the headlines. Not rows or textbooks but…bigger.

So, here’s five ways how Shanghai changed me.

1.We should have famous lessons

I sat in the back of one class as the teacher introduced the first stage of one lesson. ‘If China is the whole, Shanghai is part of the whole.’ I remembered seeing Debbie Morgan show us this lesson in our training. It’s a prelude to fractions, where part-whole relationships are explored in different contexts. The teacher I was with whispered to me- “oh this one, I’ve seen it a hundred times. This lesson is famous in China.”

Do we have famous lessons? I can’t think of any. China does.

Doesn’t that make perfect sense? You know those lessons where the kids absolutely follow every step. The lessons you get everything Goldilocks-right. They are rare, but they happen. Then we forget they happened.

Do we have famous lessons? I can’t think of any. China does.

We don’t share enough. We re-invent. Somewhere in the UK, a teacher introduced fractions perfectly. Where’s their lesson? It probably dissolved into the ether when they retired or left the profession under the strain of workload.

If we are serious about building on the cumulative expertise of those who came before us, we need to be able to capture it.

2. It can be perfect

How do you get famous lessons? Through years of refinement. All schools in Shanghai use the same textbook. Is this miserly and oppressive? No.

The textbook is a starting point. The basis for planning and a foundation with which to create. It’s preparing lessons, not planning them.

We watched a lesson on finding the area of a parallelogram. The teacher skilfully showing different methods, her animations drawing a gasp (yes, really) from all of us as she unveiled her final method. In the post-lesson discussion, there were eight Chinese teachers all with the textbook used to plan the lesson in front of them.

I asked her what she would have changed about the lesson. This is garden-variety in a British observation. They all started to flick through the textbooks and discussed the post its which adorned the pages as additional thoughts and tweaks. They drew a blank. She answered me: “Nothing. It was perfect I think. What would you change?”

Perfect? When have you heard a lesson in this country being perfect? I’d never had that answer to that question.

Of course, it was perfect. I certainly wouldn’t have changed anything. I told her that. She then started to explain that three years ago, when she had only taught the lesson a couple of times, she decided that the children weren’t making the connection between two of the models she showed, so she added an interim model of her own devising. The lesson, as a consequence of careful filtering, was perfect.

3. Seeing teaching is small.  When it comes to observation, there’s more.

Oh to be a teacher in Shanghai. Teaching two 35-minute lessons each day. Spending the rest of your time planning, observing and talking about teaching. What a CPD model. What luxury.

There were teachers fresh out of training who made me look amateurish and ill-informed. Compared with them, I am. We can’t re-create their model in its entirety, but one aspect of the lesson study model is underused in the UK. Seeing lesson study as a three-part process. Planning, observation and discussion. You need to be there when decisions were made. You need to see what impact the decisions had in the class. You need to talk about it and strategize after a lesson.

Can we do this every day like the Chinese? No. But we could do it a lot more than we currently do.

4. A good visualiser is worth its weight in gold.

Can you see what I see here?

What advice would you give this person?

What do I really like about what I see here?

Can you see what this person thinks?

Talk us through your work while I show everyone.

If you don’t have one already, get a visualiser. Use it every lesson like the Chinese and it will transform how you give feedback. I don’t mark books now; I use a visualiser.

Get a good one. Something fixed in place, reliable and easy to use. If it’s not easy, you won’t use it and it will gather dust. We all have that colourful bendy neck one somewhere in a drawer.  I saw 50 lessons in Shanghai and every single lesson used a visualiser. Weight. In. Gold.

5. Too many of us fall for the lazy critique of Shanghai.

“They’ve got no creativity, though. They end up as robots.”

This tired critique is baseless. I saw creativity in spades and, whisper this, they were more innovative in open problem solving than my kids. I also saw kids being kids and everything that entails. I saw kids working their socks off for the 35-minute sessions and then skipping into the 10-minute breaks between each lesson. They play bouncy cartoon music through the hall. The kids’ attention dissolves and you see that they are just that: kids.

Without resurrecting Brain Gym, you might have recognised the power of a break. You might have even called it a brain break. The Chinese give one every 35 minutes. Oppressive?

The teachers in Shanghai do a better job than my hour lessons and they do it in 35 minutes. This gives them time. Time for music, art, drama. I went to a couple of non-maths lessons and even learned a little bit of playing what I think was a cornet. Their curriculum is broad. Definitely broader than most primary schools I see.

No creativity? The Chinese launch three times as many new patents as their closest competitors, the US. The old adage of robotic kids getting drilled in schools is offensive and inaccurate. They have plenty of new ideas.

I stepped back on the plane determined to recreate what I could and be relaxed about what I couldn’t. We don’t want to be little Shanghai. It would be a mistake to replicate what someone bigger and better-funded already does. You would always be the diet coke compared with ‘the real thing’.

However, we can model work better. We can return to great lessons we have taught before and make them famous. We can take time to watch observations through from idea to conclusion, not just at the point it may or may not be working. China changed me and made me determined to re-create these models in the school where I am now Head of School.

China changed me and made me determined to re-create these models in the school where I am now Head of School.

Yes. I did put them in rows. I wish I’d done it years ago. You might even be a groups-to-rows convert after Covid-19. If you hadn’t had them in rows before, have you seen a silver lining you weren’t expecting? I know I did.


Dan Polak

Dan Polak started as a Secondary English teacher. When he moved to Primary education, he specialised in mathematics and became a Mastery Specialist and Maths SLE. He holds an Msc in neuroscience and is interested in how education and neuroscience interact as disciplines. He is now the Head of School at Pilton Bluecoat Academy, a Junior School in North Devon.

Follow Dan on Twitter – @Dandoeslearning

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