Is this the best we can do? Part 3: success stories

There isn’t a problem in teaching or learning that someone somewhere hasn’t solved. We just need to find them and take some field notes.

– Doug Lemov

This is part of a series offering my opinion on some problems with UK maths education. The first part looked at the state of affairs with regards to GCSE and PISA results, and the second part looked at my attempt at a diagnosis. This post addresses where to find potential solutions. 

Adam Creen responded to my first two posts in this series with this correct observation:

This is true. After all, many agreed with my diagnosis and could identify with my experiences, but no-one offered any solutions. If the problem is widely recognized but there’s no readily acknowledged solution, then any solution must not be straightforward.

But: it doesn’t mean that no solutions exist. In fact, I’m optimistic they are out there. Why?

When I heard Doug Lemov of Teach Like a Champion speak briefly on his work, my abiding memory is of his deeply insightful focus: there isn’t a problem in teaching or learning that someone somewhere hasn’t solved. We just need to find them and take some field notes.’

So, in Lemov’s spirit, this post will begin investigate: what education regions/systems/schools seem to have solved these problems with maths education? Following posts will then address: how do they do it? Do they address the UK-specific issues I identified in part 2? And how can we transfer these lessons to the UK, to our schools, to our classrooms?

Success stories


In 1984, Singapore was ranked 16th out of 26 countries in the TIMMS an international study of maths proficiency. 11 years later, Singapore ranked first – and in the years since, has only continued to establish its position at the very top of the world’s education systems.


A very similar story can be told about Shanghai. In an education system that has undergone the Cultural Revolution, that has had to be recreated over the past few decades, Shanghai’s recent success – first in PISA tables since 2009, and continuing to improve, just like Singapore – is astounding.

In contrast, ‘England has maintained the same level of performance in mathematics seen in the last two cycles of PISA. As was the case in 2006 and 2009, England’s performance in 2012 is not significantly different from the OECD average… Nineteen countries had mean scores in mathematics that were significantly higher than England’s’. (Source)

And from countries to classrooms: Garfield High School in Eastern Los Angeles has primarily served an underprivileged working-class Hispanic community. It was a difficult school. As the LA Times reported,

In 1975, the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges declared the gang-ridden, academically impoverished institution the worst high school in the district and threatened it with loss of accreditation.

However, the year before this declaration, the maths teacher Jaime Escalante joined Garfield High. Twelve years later?

only four high schools in the country had more students taking and passing the AP calculus exam than Garfield.

(LA Times).

Wow. (Furthermore, AP Calculus is not an easy course. As I’ve skimmed through the syllabus, it looks of comparable difficulty to A-level maths, with less breadth but more depth.) And interestingly, once Escalante left Garfield in 1991, Garfield’s AP calculus pass rate plummeted: in 1996, only 11 students passed an AP calculus course, compared to the former peak of 85. His success was so extraordinary they even made an Oscar-nominated film about him, a maths teacher.


Lemov’s key question, then: what explains these massive leaps? What do Singapore, Shanghai, and Jaime Escalante do? What notes can we take? And how do they apply to the specific problems we seem to face in the UK?

The solutions aren’t straightforward, and come at different levels: some will require a co-ordinated department or a whole school, others are better suited to regional or national strategy/policy levels. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless to think about such solutions. After all, if practising maths teachers aren’t proposing or calling for any particular solutions, then non-maths-teachers will be doing it all. Of course, other suggestions will be more practical for schools and teachers. And it’s also possible that there might be some large scale collaboration possibilities in the wider maths twittersphere.

Furthermore, I’m aware that these success stories are not new to most UK maths teachers. We’ve heard of little else but Shanghai and Singapore maths recently. However, instead of a more generalized examination of features of their maths education systems (of which there are many), I’ll be focusing on particular aspects that I think offer the best remedies for the 3 problems identified in my diagnosis: behaviour & attitudes, lack of pedagogy, and memory.

So, the following posts, linked below, will start to outline what I see as the most promising solutions:

  1. High quality textbooks, used as designed, would bring maximum pedagogical improvements to teachers in the minimum amount of time. (Click to keep reading part 4)
  2. Expecting students to put in more hard work through better homework policies (Click to keep reading part 5)


7 thoughts on “Is this the best we can do? Part 3: success stories

  1. Pingback: Is this the best we can do? Part 4: better pedagogy through better textbooks | mathagogy

  2. Pingback: Is this the best we can do? Part 2: Diagnosis | mathagogy

  3. Pingback: Is this the best we can do? Part 5: hard work & homework | mathagogy

  4. Pingback: Is this the best we can do? Part 1: the problem | mathagogy

  5. Pingback: Is this the best we can do? Part 6: the problem of forgetting | mathagogy

  6. Pingback: Is this the best we can do? Part 7: the spacing effect | mathagogy

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