Introducing East Asian teaching methods into western schools: is it a good idea?

John Jerrim.

About six months ago I released a paper discussing the reason for East Asian success in the OECD PISA survey of 15 year olds’ skills and knowledge in reading, mathematics and science, focussing largely upon the role of home background and culture. I have been somewhat overwhelmed by the number of people who have shown an interest in this paper and who have contacted me about this work since. Today, I present some evidence on the other side of the story – the ‘impact’ of East Asian teaching methods on children’s mathematics test scores.

Over the last two and a half years I have been evaluating the ARK ‘Maths Mastery’ programme along with Anna Vignoles from the University of Cambridge. This introduced a Singaporean inspired ‘mastery’ teaching approach into a selection of England’s primary and secondary schools, with the impact evaluated via a Randomised Controlled Trial methodology. The Education Endowment Foundation reports can be found here and the subsequent academic paper here.

The two trials were of reasonable quality, and produced some interesting results. They both pointed towards a small positive effect, though neither quite reached statistical significance independently. When combining the evidence across the two trials, we found that children who had been exposed to the programme made around a month more progress in mathematics than those who did not. To put this another way, the programme would move a child at the 50th percentile (i.e. ranked 50th in mathematics within a school of 100 children) up to around 47th.

There is of course quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding this result. For instance, it is not clear how far one can extrapolate results from this trial to the wider population, while the confidence intervals suggest that the ‘true’ effect size could be a lot bigger (double) or smaller (essentially zero) than we report. We nevertheless feel that the results provide some interesting insights, particularly given policymakers’ interest in East Asian teaching methods, given these countries’ strong performance in PISA.

To begin, there is no escaping that the effect size we found was small. This suggests that introducing such methods would be unlikely to springboard England to the top of the PISA rankings. Indeed, as I have noted previously, there are likely to be a lot of other factors in these countries at play.

Yet, at the same time, effects of this magnitude are also not trivial, particularly given the low cost per pupil. For instance, effects of a similar magnitude were reported for The Literacy Hour – which many consider to be a good example of a low-cost intervention that was a success. Moreover, our trials only considered the impact of introducing such methods after just one year (the first year such methods were used in these schools). But programmes like Maths Mastery are meant to develop children’s skills over several years, which may result in bigger gains. However, there is currently no empirical evidence available for us to judge whether this is indeed the case or not.

Given the above, our advice is that policymakers should proceed with their investigations into the impact of East Asian teaching methods, while also exercising caution. In particular, the empirical evidence currently available does not have sufficient scope or depth to base national policy upon. But there are perhaps some positive signs. What is now needed is further research establishing the long-run impact of such methods after they have been implemented within schools for several years, and after teachers have more experience with this different approach.

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Posted in Education policy, Evidence-based policy, International comparisons, Schools
4 comments on “Introducing East Asian teaching methods into western schools: is it a good idea?
  1. Jude says:

    Good post! This is perhaps something that can be a basis for research collaboration between academics in London and in Singapore.

  2. Mick Roon says:

    Can’t be just method. The kinds of conversation and attitude at home towards mathematics and education in general are the main factors.It’s also cultural. If most Jane and Jimmy in North America took math and education as seriously as they would hockey, we would have some real significant improvements.

  3. Reblogged this on The Learning Renaissance and commented:
    It is a truism, that government policy in the content and process of education is not generally informed by considerations of how people do things elsewhere.

    There is little interest in how they teach things in other countries generally as the belief, correct to a point, that how they do things elsewhere is dependent on a whole range of cultural elements which makes new methodologies and techniques not transferable from one country to the next.

    The two exceptions to this observation are:

    1. When a country is sliding down the OECD education effectiveness scale whilst another country seems to be rising at meteoric pace

    2. A technique from abroad appears cheaper to implement than existing methodologies.

    A case in point has come up with the teaching of Mathematics. In East Asia a different technique is being praised as providing a sound foundation for the teaching of the subject which equips learners to work with greater accuracy and dexterity with increasingly more complex material.

    This article outlines both the technique and the implications of implementing it in the UK…

  4. Nice post and methods which you have disucced in your blog. I think that new teaching methods should be implemented on the students so that they can learn with different innovative methods. If someone is interested in tutoring jobs can visit

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