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ZDM Mathematics Education (2007) 39:287300

DOI 10.1007/s11858-007-0030-7

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Chinese (Mainland) teachers views of effective mathematics


teaching and learning
Tao Wang Jinfa Cai

Accepted: 2 May 2007 / Published online: 19 June 2007


 FIZ Karlsruhe 2007

Abstract This study investigates Chinese teachers cultural beliefs concerning effective mathematics teaching
through semi-structured interview with nine experienced
teachers. For the Chinese teachers, an effective teacher
should always be passionate and committed to the teaching
profession. She should not only understand the knowledge
in the textbook thoroughly but also be able to carefully
craft the knowledge from the textbook for teaching by
predicting possible students difficulties. Although Chinese
teachers emphasize student participation and flexible
teaching, they tend to see the teachers ability to design and
lead coherent lessons as the key for facilitating students
understanding. The result of this study helps researchers
and educators understand the teacher-designed and content-oriented teaching model in Chinese classrooms.

1 A brief description of mathematics education


in Mainland China
We start with a brief description of mathematics education
in China to situate our presentation of the findings about
teachers beliefs (see Cai & Nie, in press; Fan, Wong, Cai,
& Li, 2004 for more information about mathematics education in China). For years, China had 6-3-3 educational
system (6 years elementary school, 3 years in junior high
school, and 3 years in senior high school). In recent years,
T. Wang
The University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK, USA
J. Cai (&)
Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Delaware,
532 Ewing Hall, Newark, DE 19716, USA
e-mail: jcai@math.udel.edu

it has experimented with a 5-4-3 system. After graduating from senior high school, students can enter colleges
or universities after passing a college/university entrance
examination. China is one of the countries where, to a great
extent, the examination scores can determine a students
opportunity for additional education and even future
careers (Cai & Nie, in press). The vast majority of problems
in any examinations are related to basic knowledge and
basic skills. Thus, the principal purpose of mathematics
instruction is to help students grasp basic knowledge and
skills, so they can earn higher scores in examinations. Because of their competitive nature, problems on examinations are usually very challenging, and they also include a
large quantity of problems (Cai & Nie, in press).
China has a unified national curriculum. In the early
1950s, the China adopted the Soviet mathematics curriculum. Thus, the curriculum paid more attention to mathematical deductions using formal and rigorous mathematical
language, just like Soviet mathematics curriculum. Then,
in the late 1970s, the Chinese syllabus of mathematics
teaching for elementary and secondary schools required
students to apply mathematical knowledge to solve real-life
problems (Chinese National Ministry of Education, 1978).
The syllabus in 1988 explicitly stated that students should
not only be able to calculate correctly, but also be able to
understand the principles of mathematical operations, and
use appropriate strategies to solve problems (Chinese State
Education Commission, 1988). In 2001, Curriculum Standards for 9-year compulsory education were issued, representing the newest wave of the curriculum reform (Basic
Education Curriculum Material Development Centre,
2001). Instead of one set of national unified textbooks,
multiple sets of textbooks and instructional materials have
been developed and published according the National
Curriculum Standards. Besides the basic knowledge and

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skills, the new curriculum puts emphasis on connecting


mathematics to real-life, thereby nurturing students interest and creativity in mathematics.
In China, teachers are trained in normal schools or
normal universities. Each province has also Educational
Colleges to provide in-service trainings so that teachers can
receive advanced degrees. For example, a normal school is
usually 23 years for training elementary school mathematics teachers. After entering an educational college for
an advanced training in mathematics and mathematics
education, a teacher can receive a bachelors degree.

teachers are invited to observe the lesson. After the lesson, the teachers discuss the features of the lesson for
other teachers to model. In China, there are many national
and local teaching journals, and teachers can contribute
articles to share their experience. Many of the participating teachers have given model lessons and wrote articles for local teaching journals. All of the participating
teachers have taken or are taking additional mathematics
and mathematics education courses (Table 1).

2 The participants

3.1 Chinese teachers views about mathematics

Eight of the nine participating teachers graduated from


normal schools (2 or 3 years), the remaining participating
teacher graduated from a normal university (4 years).
They are distinguished because they were actively participating in instructional improvement projects, writing
articles to share their teaching experience in local teaching journals, becoming teacher researchers, and giving
model lessons to other teachers. A teacher researcher is
the one who helps other teachers analyze textbooks,
identifies essential and important points in textbooks, and
provides instructional guidance. Becoming a teacher researcher itself is an honor. Only those who have been
widely recognized can be promoted to serve as a teacher
researcher (Paine, 1990). In China, one of the common inservice activities is called model lessons. An experienced teacher is invited to teach a lesson, and other

Table 2 shows how Chinese teachers think about mathematics. When asked about the nature of mathematics, the
Chinese teachers tend to answer the question by explaining
the relationship between mathematics and real life problems from three perspectives. First, the teachers tend to
think that mathematics knowledge comes from real life
problems with numbers. Second, they differentiate between
mathematics knowledge and concrete real life problems in
that mathematics is an abstract and coherent knowledge
system. Third, they see mathematics as a useful tool to help
solve real life problems efficiently.

3 Results

3.1.1 Mathematics is from real life


All nine Chinese teachers agree that mathematics knowledge comes from real life. For example, CH7 argues that

Table 1 Details of Mainland Chinese participants


Code

Sex

Qualifications

Years of
teaching

Other relevant data

CH1

Graduate from a normal school

19

Active participant of an instructional improvement project

CH2

Graduate from a normal school, Received a


bachelors degree through advanced training

25

Frequent contributor to books or teaching journals for teachers,


gave model lessons

CH3

Graduate from a normal school, advanced training in


mathematics and mathematics education

22

Active participant of an instructional improvement project,


gave many model lessons for other teachers

CH4

Graduate from a normal school, advanced training in


mathematics and mathematics education

30

Gave model lessons for other teachers, wrote articles for a local
teaching journal

CH5

Graduate from a normal university, took additional


mathematics courses in another normal university

19

Became a teacher researcher 2 years ago, she does not teach in


class, but helps other teachers to teach

CH6

Graduate from a normal school, took additional


mathematics courses from a university

23

Active participant of an instructional improvement project

CH7

Graduate from a normal school, took courses from


another university and received a bachelors
degree

34

Has been a teacher researcher for 11 years, he does not teach in


class, but helps other teachers to teach, gave many model
lessons for other teachers

CH8

Graduate from a normal school, was taking classes


from a university

21

Has been a teacher researcher for 3 years, received a prize for a


teaching competition

CH9

Graduate from a normal school, was taking


additional courses in math and math education
courses from a normal university

20

Gave model lessons for other teachers, wrote articles for a


local teaching journal

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Chinese (Mainland) teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning


Table 2 Chinese teachers views about mathematics
CH1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Knowledge from daily life

+ + + + + + + +

Practical in daily life and in sciences

A language

An art and a game of abstract entities +

+ +

Rational thinking

Abstract and generalized

Unable to articulate

tures of each specific life problem. She further uses


following example to illustrate this process.
We first can see many [shapes of] angles in real life.
Then you can draw angles on a piece of paper. And
finally you describe the general features of an angle
and shape the concept of angle that is more abstract
and general than those real life angles.

+ + +

+ + +

+
+
+

+ + + + + + + +
+

A + indicates that the teacher has a corresponding statement

mathematics is from real life. CH3 specifies that mathematics is to understand concepts of number in daily life.
Consequently the teachers tend to see that learning and
teaching mathematics should connect mathematics
knowledge with concrete, real life problems (more detailed
discussions can be found in the sections on mathematics
learning and teaching). However, CH1 points out that the
relationship between mathematics and real life situations
has been highlighted only recently in the new national
unified curriculum in China.
Recently the new curriculum requires teachers to pay
attention to connecting mathematics with real life
situations. There is clearly an increasing emphasis on
the practicality [in the curriculum] of mathematics.
With the enactment of the new curriculum, we feel
that it is more and more important to connect mathematics with real life. The new textbook is also closer
to real life [than the old textbook].
3.1.2 Mathematical knowledge is abstract and connected
All nine teachers differentiate mathematics knowledge
from real life problems in that mathematics is an abstract
and generalized knowledge system refined from real life
problems. For example, CH3 says:
Mathematics stems from real life...but it is the
knowledge refined [tilian] from real life. Once our
ancestors help us get the knowledge, we can directly
apply the general knowledge without considering
some unnecessary features of each specific real life
problems.
Here Chinese word tilian used by CH3 has three basic
meanings. It can mean extracting, refining, and purifying. It
seems that for CH3, the real life problems provide only raw
materials that should be purified and abstracted as mathematics knowledge by discarding some unnecessary fea-

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Another Chinese teacher (CH2) also uses this metaphorical


word tilian to exemplify the process of generating mathematics knowledge from real life problems.
I think we need to elevate [our knowledge]. For
example, the relationship between unit price, quantity, and whole cost can be understood first through
using a simple example of how much you spend to
buy a certain amount of pencils and how much for
each pencil. Then you can generate (tilian) the concepts of unit price and total cost.
In addition to the nature of abstractness, another important
feature mentioned by all the Chinese teachers is that
mathematical knowledge is interconnected. The comments
from CH7 are quite typical:
Mathematics itself is a coherent and logic knowledge
system. To have students think logically, the teacher
should use formal and precise mathematics language.
Two other teachers (CH1 and CH3) also argue that
mathematics is a special language system with its own
symbols, terms, and rules that can reshape our thinking.
CH1 uses an example to illustrate that being unfamiliar
with mathematical symbols or language can cause problems when transferring life knowledge to mathematical
knowledge. CH1 states that some young students can
understand one cigarette plus another equal two cigarettes.1 But they still have problems understanding the
equation of 1 + 1 = 2.
This view of mathematics as an abstract and coherent
knowledge system is more directly reflected in the teachers response to mathematics learning and understanding
where they claim that the crucial task for mathematics
learning is to build a bridge from the concrete to the abstract (see the discussion related to mathematics understanding).
Because of the abstract nature of mathematics, some
teachers (CH1, CH2, CH3, and CH7) explicitly mention
that mathematics is an art and a game of abstract entities.
It is thinking gymnastics and students can refine their skills
through repeated practice.
1

The Tobacco industry is one of the main local industries. Therefore,


cigarette becomes a frequently used word in classroom.

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Most Chinese teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7) also


believe that learning mathematics trains students thinking
in an abstract and logical way. Therefore, learning
mathematics is not only learning certain concepts but also
developing a way of thinking, which five Chinese teachers
(CH1, 3, 4, 5, and 7) label as lixing siwei (rational
thinking) (see the discussion related to mathematics
learning).
3.1.3 Mathematics as a tool to solve problems
Five Chinese teachers (CH1, 2, 7, 8, and 9) comment that
mathematics knowledge is practical in daily life and can
help people solve real life problems in an efficient way. For
example, CH8 argues that mathematics is a science as well
as a necessary tool for life.
These teachers further argue that mathematics knowledge should be applied to solve real life problems. These
Chinese teachers see the ability of applying mathematics knowledge into real life problems not only as a
fundamental aim of learning mathematics but also as
an indication of a higher level of mathematics understanding (more detailed discussion can be found in the
section on mathematics learning).
It should be noted that not all nine teachers were able
to clearly articulate their beliefs about mathematics right
after they heard the question. Instead, three of them
(CH1, 7, and 9) first responded that they had never
thought about the question explicitly and carefully before.
After a short hesitation, they gradually came up with
some ideas about the nature of mathematics. This type of
hesitation in their responses confirms Thompsons (1992)
argument that many mathematics teachers beliefs about
this issue are often subconscious because they are often
shaped implicitly through their learning and teaching
experience.
In general, even though Chinese teachers believe that
mathematics comes from real life problems and needs to
apply back to real life, they tend to emphasize that mathematics itself is an abstract and coherent knowledge system. Consequently they believe that the critical issue in
mathematics learning is to help students construct a
coherent knowledge system and think logically. As a result,
they believe that the critical issue in mathematics learning
is helping students construct a coherent knowledge system
(see the discussion in the next section). Therefore, Chinese
teachers tend to hold a Platonist view with a focus on the
structural feature of the knowledge itself. The emphasis on
the abstract nature of mathematics can well explain why
Chinese teachers consistently encourage students to solve
problems using more abstract and generalized approaches
and represent the solution processes symbolically (Cai,
2004).

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3.2 Chinese teachers views about mathematics


learning
3.2.1 The nature of understanding
Table 3 specifies the Chinese teachers views about the
learning of mathematics. There is a consensus from the
nine teachers that the ultimate goal of learning mathematics is to understand mathematics. Their responses
indicate that they see mathematics understanding through
three interrelated levels: understanding abstract concept by
using real life examples, understanding by connecting
concepts together, and understanding by applying concepts.
At the same time, they tend to see memorizing and practice
as an indispensable step to develop the latter two aspects of
understanding (Table 3).
Understanding is to develop abstract concept from concrete examples As discussed in the previous section, the
Chinese teachers tend to view mathematics as an abstract
knowledge system that comes from real life problems.
Almost all the Chinese teachers (except CH6), on the one
hand, insist that a teacher should use concrete examples or
teaching tools to help students, especially low-level students, understand mathematics. But, on the other hand,
most teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8) argue that
understanding some concrete cases does not guarantee an
understanding on the abstract level. Recall that CH1 uses
an example that some young students can understand one
cigarette plus another equal two cigarettes but not the
equation of 1 + 1 = 2. CH1 also remembers vividly that
one fifth-grade boy who could manage the complex family
daily expenses but who had very poor mathematics grade
in school. CH1 explains this:
Once the knowledge is abstracted as mathematical
knowledge, some young students have difficulties to
understanding.

Table 3 Chinese teachers beliefs about mathematics learning


CH1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Understanding as the ultimate goal of +
learning mathematics

+ + + + + + + +

Using concrete examples according to +


content and students age

+ + + +

+ + +

Deepening understanding by deriving


formulas

+ +

+ +

Learning to think logically

+ + +

Applying knowledge flexibly

Memorizing for understanding

+ + + + + + + +

+ + +

A + indicates that the teacher has a corresponding statement

Chinese (Mainland) teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

Five teachers (CH1, 3, 4, 5, and 7) use the two Chinese


terms of ganxing siwei (sensory thinking) and lixing siwei
(logical thinking) to describe the two levels of understanding. Ganxing in Chinese means direct, concrete, and
not systematic; in contrast, lixing means indirect, interlogic and systematic. For example, CH5 explains the differences between the two concepts:
[At the beginning] knowing is a sensory (ganxing)
phenomenon. This is a primitive stage of knowledge.
Understanding is a requirement at a logical (lixing)
level. At this level, students can understand the
mathematics connotations of concepts.
The five teachers believe that learning mathematics is a
process that elevates sensory knowing to logical understanding. For example, CH3 argues:
Learning should gradually transfer from sensory
(ganxing) understanding to logical (lixing) understandingTeachers should use some educational
tools to enhance students sensory knowledge and
then elevate it to logical (lixing) thinking.
CH1 expresses a similar idea.
When children just start to learn mathematics, concrete examples and materials are often necessary. But
later, we should teach them to infer new knowledge
from previously learned mathematics knowledge.
Four teachers further (CH2, 4, 7, and 8) suggest that students should be encouraged and guided to make observations and then to facilitate their acquisition of abstract
knowledge from concrete examples. For example, CH8
says:
After using some concrete examples, [teachers] guide
students to observe, compare, discuss, re-observe,
and generalize [what they find]...For example, to
shape a concept of rectangular prism, I let students
observe [a real object] and ask them to find its features. And then, I ask them to think all kinds of
rectangular objects they have seen. Finally I help
them to shape the abstract concept of rectangular in
their mind by capturing some common features of
these rectangular shapes.
Sometimes, says CH8:
I will have students touch and observe the object.
Then they can sense something. For example, how
many faces or edges it has. Then I ask them to close
their eyes to think about those features with a concrete representation in their mind space. Then they
can gradually capture those features of the concept
and finally learn to think abstractly.

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Using Vygotskys (1978) words, CH8s approach is a


typical process of internalizing and appropriating a concrete representation into an abstract and mental representation.
Understanding is to connect abstract concept together Seven teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8) mention
that students should deepen their understanding by connecting concepts. For example, CH5 says:
Deep understanding happens when students can
connect concepts by seeing their inter-relationships.
CH1 also claims:
Sometimes new concepts could be understood by
inducing them from previously learned concepts.
Five teachers (CH2, 4, 5, 7, and 8) view deriving a formula
from previously learned mathematics concepts and formulas as an important approach toward establishing conceptual connections. For example, CH2 claims it is a
popular approach for Chinese teachers.
I observed many classes. Many teachers take pains to
help students derive formulae (from previously
learned concepts). Although students will not be required to derive formulas in their tests, we put a lot of
energy in that.
Both CH2 and CH4 use an example of learning the formula
of the area of a rectangle to illustrate the process of
deriving one formula from another. They say that students
should understand that the product of length and width
gives the number of small squares, each of which has an
area of one square unit. Through this, the students can
connect the knowledge of different formulas together.
In a previous study (see Cai & Wang, 2006), where we
studied these nine Chinese teachers lesson plans for
teaching the concept of ratio, one of the main features of
the lesson plans was that all the Chinese teachers emphasized the connection between the new knowledge of ratio
and the previously learned knowledge about division and
fractions.
CH7 uses another example to demonstrate the importance of connecting knowledge in helping students understand abstract knowledge. She explains that when students
learn the formula for the area of a triangle (base times
height, then divided by 2), they should understand that:
What can we get with base times height? This is the
area of a parallelogram. Then they should understand
why the product should be divided by 2.
In addition to deriving formulas from each other, CH1
raises another way to construct an abstract mathematics

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knowledge system: further generalizing knowledge by


shaping some super ordinate concepts. CH1 encourage his
students to shape two super ordinate concepts, he (combining) and fen (separating) after they learned four basic
operations:
[The students] should understand that the four operations are two fundamental processes: combining and
separating. Addition and multiplication are the combining, and subtraction and division are the separating. Also they should know the difference between
subtraction and division in that they are separating in
different ways. Subtraction is to separate the whole
into groups with different or the same amount of
portions while division is to separate the whole into
some portions with the same numbers. Once they
understand it, they can quickly learn how to separate
the whole in a specific word problem.
For CH1, students understanding is deepened when they
can re-construct a conceptual system by establishing a
hierarchical relationship between abstract knowledge pieces. This idea of organizing a higher level of abstraction,
generality, and inclusiveness is very close to Ausubels
well-known concept of advanced organizer (Ausubel
1963, 1978).
Although all the Chinese teachers emphasize the significance of understanding on this abstract level, most of
them claim that the highest level of understanding is using
abstract knowledge to solving new problems flexibly.
Understanding is to apply abstract knowledge flexibly Five teachers (CH1, 2, 7, 8, and 9) see flexibly
applying abstract mathematics knowledge as the highest
level of understanding. Three teachers (CH7, 8, and 9) use
flexibility as the keyword to describe understanding on
this level. For example, CH7 says:
What is real understanding? It is when students can
apply knowledge flexibly that they have real understanding.
CH8 expresses the similar idea from an opposite perspective.
If students cannot apply knowledge flexibly, then
they dont really understand knowledge yet because
their knowledge is not flexible enough to transfer.
Although CH1 does not use the word flexible, he explains that applying means solving variations of problems, which cannot be solved by directly applying a
formula:
...for most students, word problems could cause some
special difficulties. They cannot directly use symbolic

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mathematics knowledge. Instead, they should understand the relationship between abstract knowledge
and special conditions provided by the word problem.
They should construct the relationship [between their
knowledge and new situation] by themselves, based
on their understanding.
It is quite clear that the Chinese teachers views of the three
levels of understanding (understanding abstract concept by
using real life examples; understanding by to connecting
concepts together; and understanding by applying the
concepts flexibly) are related to their views of the nature of
mathematics. Five Chinese teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 5, and 8)
even argue that the three levels of understanding are hierarchical and sequential. For example, CH1 says:
Start with concrete examples, then help students
make abstract mathematical concepts. But finally
they need to apply knowledge back to solving problems... A student has real understanding when he can
juyifansan.2
3.2.2 Memorizing and understanding
In terms of the role of memorization in learning, Chinese
teachers tend to differentiate two kinds of memorization:
memorization after understanding and memorization before understanding. All nine teachers agree that memorizing after understanding is important for it can help students
retain knowledge and apply their knowledge efficiently
when solving problems. For example, CH1 explains that
memorizing formulas is necessary.
Although we often encourage students to understand
a formula by deriving it from learned knowledge, you
cannot derive it every time you need it to solve
problems. Therefore, memorize it after understanding
it. Then you can apply it in new contexts and deepen
your understanding. Without the memorizing process,
you must have trouble applying it.
CH7 uses an example to illustrate the importance of
memorizing mathematical knowledge after understanding.
Memorizing is important. But memorizing is based
on understanding. For example, the multiplication
tables should be memorized after students understand
how they are created so that they can apply it efficiently.
It should be noted that all nine Chinese teachers strongly
object to mere mechanical memorization, but some of them
2
A Chinese idiom with meaning of knowing one concept and
applying into three situations.

Chinese (Mainland) teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

(CH1, 4, and 8) admit that, sometimes, traditional


mechanical rote learning without any understanding happens in the classroom. That is, memorization can come
before understanding. These teachers see it as an intermediate step, especially for some lower level students as
they start their learning. However, they believe that this
kind of memorizing is only a transitional strategy, not the
final goal. Chinese teachers believe that when students start
with rote memorization (without understanding), they
should be able to gradually come to understanding by
practicing. Otherwise, if they cannot move beyond rote
memorization, their knowledge is dead knowledge in that it
can not last long and is difficult to be applied and transferred into a new situation according to CH8. CH3 further
points out that sometimes rote memorization can lead to
deeper understanding. One of the most common approaches to memorization and understanding is through
practicing.
3.2.3 Role of practice
In general, Chinese teachers believe that practice has two
basic functions. First, they see practice as a necessary
process to consolidate knowledge and facilitate understanding. Second, they see practice as a means to get
feedback from students so that teachers can adjust their
later teaching. The second function will be discussed in the
next section discussing teachers views of teacher and
teaching (Table 4).
All nine Chinese teachers see practicing as a key to
consolidating knowledge and facilitate understanding. For
example, CH8 argues:
Practice provides an opportunity for students to
experience applying mathematics knowledge by
themselves... Through this process, students can
experience and uncover their own mistakes, both of
which are so valuable both for the students learning
and the teachers later teaching.
Five Chinese teachers (CH1, 5, 7, 8, 9) believe that practice
can help students apply knowledge into new situations

Table 4 Chinese teachers views of the role of practice


CH1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Deepening understanding

Connecting to previously learned


knowledge

+ + + + + + + +
+

+ + +

293

flexibly. For example, CH8 argues that practice can help


students deepen their understanding and turn a concept into
live knowledge, which is easy to transfer into solving
new problems.
Four Chinese teachers (CH3, 4, 7, and 8) mention that
mastering a concept sometimes requires much practice. For
example, CH4 argues:
It is through repeated practicing students come to
consolidate their mathematical understanding.
CH3 also agree about having multiple times to practice.
But she points out that each round of practice has its unique
pedagogical function in helping understanding.
The goal of the first practice right after learning the
new content is to have students try [to apply their]
primary understanding. Then both the teacher and
students could find insufficiency [of understanding].
Then the second practice is to consolidate knowledge
by correcting these mistakes.
Another interesting topic about practice from the teachers
response deals with Chinese students overload of homework. For example CH7 notes:
On average a sixth-grade student needs to spend more
than one hour [each day], even two hours to finish
mathematics homework. It has been a salient problem
in Chinese mathematics education... Some students
told me that they even cannot finish the homework
before 11 pm or midnight.
According to CH4, there is a new policy that sixth-grade
teachers should assign lighter homework so that students
can finish it within 1 h every day. Almost all the Chinese
teachers say that they have reduced student homework
dramatically since the new policy. However, CH8 argues
that reducing homework should not be at an expense of
student understanding. Instead she argues that the new
policy requires a teacher to design homework carefully and
to understand students understanding status, based on the
feedback from homework. As a result, she argues, it (the
new policy) does reduce students load but increase
teachers load. In any case, for Chinese teachers, no matter
how much homework they can assign, it is for understanding.
3.3 Chinese teachers views about the teacher
and teaching
3.3.1 Characteristics of an effective teacher

Applying knowledge in new contexts


flexibly

Providing feedback to the teacher

+ + + + + + + +

A + indicates that the teacher has a corresponding statement

The teachers list a variety of skills and traits of an effective


mathematics teacher from three perspectives. Some are
about a teachers personal traits (e.g., caring about kids),

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some are about the teachers mathematics knowledge, and


others are related to instructional skills.
Chinese teachers mention the following personal traits
of the effective teacher.
Commitment to teaching Six teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and
7) point out that an effective teacher should have a commitment to teaching itself. Commitment embodies both
passion and responsibility. In terms of the passion, CH1
says that an effective teacher is always passionate in caring
about students both in and out of the classroom. CH2
further argues that this kind of passion builds a positive
rapport between the teacher and students which can directly impact a students learning itself, since some students love mathematics because they love their
mathematics teacher. Therefore, she insists that, to a great
extent, a teachers commitment and passion are even more
important than her mathematics knowledge.
Commitment to teaching also means being responsible
for the students. CH3 argues that a good teacher should be
responsible for teaching and caring for students. CH7
elaborates what a highly responsible teacher acts like.
Feeling great responsibility, she will do this: If she
finds that one student get lost [in their learning], she
will give some extra help to the student to catch up.
No one is left behind. On the other hand, the great
responsibility means that she studies the textbook
hard and provides provoking and flexible lessons for
her students.
CH5 also realizes that the great responsibility is especially
important for elementary teachers because young students
can be easily influenced by the teachers. But as a teacher
researcher, she admits:
Due to teachers low social and economic status,
some teachers do not have great responsibilities. One
goal of teacher training programs is to enhance their
responsibility.
Cultivating student interest in learning Five teachers
(CH1, 2, 3, 4, and 8) argue that an effective teacher is the
one who can cultivate student interest in learning, primarily
through two approaches. The first approach is that students
love mathematics because they have a good personal
relationship with the mathematics teacher, as we discussed
in the previous section. These teachers believe that the
teachers passion and rapport with students are especially
important for students at the beginning of their mathematics learning. As learning progresses, these teachers argue, an effective teacher should build the students interest
in knowledge itself. For example, CH3 suggests that a good
teacher should further intrigue students interest by asking

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challenging questions and giving timely credit when they


are successful. CH8 describes the process of the change in
students interest in mathematics.
At the beginning, they can learn some mathematics,
and then they are willing to learn more mathematics.
Finally, they enjoy mathematics.
Passion and responsibility are necessary but not enough to
be an effective teacher. All nine teachers argue that an
effective mathematics teacher should have solid mathematics knowledge.
Solid mathematics knowledge Although two teachers
(CH1 and 2) note that advanced mathematics knowledge
can help in understanding elementary level mathematics,
seven teachers (all except CH1 and 7) put extreme
emphasis on understanding and studying textbooks thoroughly. For example, CH4 says:
I believe an effective teacher should have a thorough
understanding of the textbook and the contents.
CH5 explains the thoroughness means that the teacher
should understand not only the content itself but also why
the content is organized in a particular order and presented
in a particular way in the textbook. Through this way, CH5
argues,
An effective teacher can understand the connections
between different knowledge pieces in the textbook.
However, understanding the textbook thoroughly is not the
end for an effective teacher. According to six Chinese
teachers (CH2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9), an effective teacher
should capture some essential points (zhongdian) and
difficult points (nandian). Essential points refer to the
important concepts and knowledge. Difficult points refer to
some knowledge that could cause particular difficulties for
students because of the complexity of the knowledge itself
and the learners cognitive features (Paine, 1990). In other
words, they believe that an effective mathematics teacher
should explore and study textbooks intensively and precisely predict the potentially difficult concepts for their
students so that they can devise instructional strategies to
overcome the difficulties.
Solid mathematics knowledge and a thorough understanding of textbooks do not guarantee a teacher to be
effective in teaching. Instead, the Chinese teachers argue
that the effective teacher should also have following
instructional skills.
A good planner An effective teacher should be a good
planner. With clear essential points and difficult points in
mind after studying the textbook thoroughly, seven teachers (CH1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9) point out, an effective teacher

Chinese (Mainland) teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

should also be a good planner. In the lesson plan, CH8


argues that an effective teacher should highlight essential
points (tuchu zhongdian) and design approaches to help
students overcome difficult points (tupo nandian). CH3
summarizes that a good lesson plan should always provide
a coherent lesson structure by considering steps of how to
introduce new knowledge [daoru], explain, ask [question],
and summarize the lesson.
An effective teacher can precisely predict students
possible difficulties and then design corresponding approaches to help students break through difficult points
(nandian). CH9 uses the following example to illustrate
how to predict difficult points:
An effective teacher first should be able to predict
places where students are likely to make mistakes...
For example in teaching multiplication, the teacher
tells students that the zero at the end of the number
could be omitted first. But you should predict that
students would omit a zero in the middle as well.
Therefore, you should design a number like 3040 to
ask your students to observe and pay particular
attention to the two zeros.
Three teachers (CH3, 7 and 8) suggest designing questions
appropriate to students mathematical levels as a way to
help overcome students learning difficulties. CH8 further
points out that an effective teacher should consider the
diversity of student understanding levels and design
appropriate questions for students with different levels of
understanding.
Indeed, in a previous study (Cai, 2005; Cai & Wang,
2006) we found that the lesson plans written by these nine
Chinese teachers often have clear target content and a
coherent structure for the lesson. They explicitly write
down what the essential points and difficult points are.
Most of them even provide detailed information about
when to ask which specific question to help students realize
where the difficult points are and how to break through
them step by step.
Writing a lesson plan for a Chinese teacher is just like
writing script for a stage play for a play author, in that all
the details of the process should be carefully considered
and written out. CH8 mentions that there is often a critical
moment in your class, if you can capture student attention
at this period, your class is successful. Chinese teachers
state that when writing a lesson plan, the teacher should
consider what physical tools can be used, when to use them
and how to use them, possibly even pre-designing some of
the teachers actions, dialogues between the teacher and
students, including a blackboard design.
Even with a good lesson plan, some teachers might still
have difficulty in enacting the planned lesson in a successful way. One crucial trait for an effective teacher who

295

can implement the well-designed lesson plan involves good


communication skills.
Good communicative skills Five teachers (CH1, 3, 4, 7,
and 8) note that an effective teacher should have good
communicative skills, but they mention different aspects of
communicative skills. For example, CH3 argues, the teacher can use lively language to activate students interests
for learning and establish a good atmosphere in classroom.
CH3 also points out that, just like a good actor or actress, a
good teacher should have good performing skills to communicate with the audience. CH4, CH7, and CH8 point out
that an effective teachers language should be concise and
accurate. CH7 argues that an effective teacher should always use standardized mathematics terms instead of daily
casual language.
Communication generally includes two essential parts,
giving information to others and getting information from
them. It seems that what these teachers emphasize about an
effective teachers communication skill is more about the
skills to pass along information than listening skills, which
allow the teacher to listen to and understand students
questions or responses carefully. This teacher-centered
argument about effective communication is even clearer in
their responses about effective lessons. For example, they
argue that to have an effective lesson, the teacher should
have good questioning skills and use contagious language
to attract students attention. In contrast, they do not
mention much about how the teacher should pay attention
to students questions and responses (see the discussion
about features of effective lessons).
In summary, according to the Chinese teachers, the
characteristics of effective mathematics teachers include
the following: commitment to teaching, cultivating students interests, possessing solid math knowledge, studying
textbooks carefully and thoroughly, planning lesson carefully, knowing essential and difficult points, and having
good communication skills. All these characteristics are
external in nature, in the sense that through training one
can develop these characteristics.
3.3.2 Characteristics of an effective lesson
There is a general consensus among the nine teachers that
in an effective lesson students should understand mathematics concepts through active participation. Table 6 lists
a number of aspects of a lesson to encourage students
participation and finally enhance their understanding
(Table 6).
Coherence All nine Chinese teachers maintain that an
effective lesson should be coherent through highlighting an
essential teaching point. For example, CH2 say: first of all

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296

T. Wang, J. Cai

Table 5 Chinese teachers views about characteristics of an effective


teacher
T1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Personal traits
Commitment to teaching

+ +

Sensitive to students affective needs

+ + +

Cultivating students interests

+ + +

+ + + + + + + +

+ +
+ +

Mathematics knowledge
Strong mathematical knowledge
Thorough understanding of textbooks

+ + + + +

+ +

Knowing essential and difficult points

+ + +

+ +

Instructional skills
Good lesson planner

Clear explanation
Designing good questions

+ + +

Using concise and accurate


mathematical language
Fostering students mathematical
thinking and understanding through
concrete examples

+ + +

+ + +
+

+ + +
+ +

+
+

+ + +

+ +

Table 6 Chinese teachers views about characteristics of an effective


teacher
T1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Coherence

+ + + + + + + +

Covering expected and deep content

Contagious language

Good questioning

Comfortable classroom atmosphere

Student participation

Flexible teaching

Using concrete examples

+ + + + + + + +

Generalizing math meaning when using +


concrete example
Highlighting essential points

+ + + +
+

+ +

+ +
+ + +

+ + + +
+
+
+ + +

+ +
+ +
+

+ +

A + indicates that the teacher has a corresponding statement

an effective lesson should highlight an essential point. CH3


further argues that the theme of each activity should be
closely related to the essential point. In a previous study
(Cai & Wang, 2006), we found that Chinese teachers designed the following eight relevant activities to foster
understanding a new concept about ratio (see Fig. 1).
CH4 explains that highlighting essential points helps
students closely follow the teachers teaching. In addition
to the thematic coherence of the activities, CH3 further
points out that the effective lesson should also have a
coherent structure, which includes following consecutive
processes: introducing (daoru), explaining, questioning,

123

It is crucial to clarify the connection between todays


content and previously learned content. You should
study extremely carefully when you design the review because this review paves road for teaching the
new content.
Four teachers (CH3, 6, 7, and 8) see the last step of summarizing as important. CH7s response is quite concrete on
this issue.
The teacher may have students summarize what they
have learned. And the teacher can see who need
improvement at which aspect. Then the students are
clear what they learned today which is helpful for
their reading the textbook after the class.

A + indicates that the teacher has a corresponding statement

+ +

practicing, and summarizing. The literal meaning of the


Chinese word daoru in the first step is to get something
into an existing container. The word described a process
of introducing a new concept into students existing
knowledge structure. Three teachers (CH3, 5, and 8)
explicitly mention that this beginning step is extremely
important for an effective lesson because it is a process to
connect old and new knowledge pieces. For example CH8
explains:

All the nine teachers sample lesson plans do have these


clear steps (see a sample lesson plan in Cai and Wang
2006). The lesson structure looks like a drama which
develops a coherent story with a clear beginning, crescendo, peak, climax, and end. CH8s following description might provide a sense of what the peak and climax
look like in a lesson drama.
The critical moment of the lesson is when you are to
break though the difficult points and highlight the
essential point. The critical moment might have only
10 minutes. If the students can completely concentrate on the teaching at this moment, Bingo, you are
successful. And then, you may relax and do some
practice.
While it is a teachers responsibility to design and develop
the coherent lesson, the following response from CH8
indicates that Chinese students also contribute to the
coherence of the lesson by reviewing the content before the
class.
The students have been used to that [to reading
textbook before class]. They highlight the essential
points in their textbooks with D [to mark highlighted passages]... Sometimes, they come to the class
with some questions already.
Although CH8 is the only teacher who mentions the
requirement of students preparation, she believes that at
least 80% to 90% of mathematics teachers have this

Chinese (Mainland) teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

297

Fig. 1 Eight classroom


activities for highlighting an
essential learning point about
the concept of ratio in the nine
Chinese teachers lesson plans

requirement. In this way, the students are by no means


merely an audience but active players who need special
preparation.
Covering sufficient content and practice Six teachers
(CH1, 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8) claim that an effective lesson
should have a broad content coverage. For example, CH2
says:
By highlighting essential points and difficult points,
an effective lesson should cover all planed contents
and activities.
CH5 argues that in an effective lesson, students should have
a fast pace to fulfill many activities. CH7 see enough
practice to consolidate students knowledge as part of
sufficient content mastery. CH7 suggests the teacher design
different practices and provide different forms of help each
time.
An effective lesson should have at least two to three
times for practice. After teaching the new content,
you must have students give sufficient practice. The
teacher needs to give different forms of help at different times. First let students rely on your help. Then
let them try by themselves. Then give them practice
with more variations.
Indeed, we find that all the nine teachers designed various
practices and activities to help students get familiar with
the new concept of ratio by connecting various old
knowledge pieces (fractions and division). Each activity
includes practice and intensive discussion. These activities
can be fulfilled only at a fast pace (Cai & Wang, 2006).
CH1 and CH7 further point out that in reality not covering planned lesson content is a scary result. For
example, CH1 argues:

If you cannot control the class to fulfill the plan, then


it will affect your teaching pace later. We have specific content to cover for every class. If you cannot do
this, it is very scary [for a teacher].
Other researchers (Wong, Han, & Lee, 2004, Wang 2006)
also look at Chinese teachers concern about fulfilling the
lesson plan. They attribute this to the Chinese unified
mathematics curriculum that has detailed prescriptions for
learning content, learning outcomes, and teaching activities
for each lesson. In order to help students achieve high
performance in examinations, Chinese teachers have to try
their best to teach the content in the textbook both inclusively and intensively.
Good questioning and answering process Five teachers
(CH1, 2, 3, 8, and 9) pay their particular attention to
designing this communication process. CH1 argues that a
good question should have an appropriate difficulty level
corresponding to students current developmental level.
Therefore, a too easy or too difficult question will fail to
facilitate student learning. CH2 further argues that the level
of a question should correspond to different students
levels. She argues:
In order to broaden student participation, the teacher
should design questions with different levels of difficulty to take care of good students, average students,
and slow students. Therefore, in my class, I never
invite one student to answer a question more than
three times so that more students can have chances to
answer questions.
This response also shows that the Chinese teachers try hard
to have as many students as possible to directly participate
in the question and answer process. CH8 argues a good

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298

question will activate not only students participation, but


also their classmates interest as they observe, compare,
infer, and even raise their own questions. This kind of
student participation with active verbal and thinking exchange is crucial for constructing a dynamic classroom
atmosphere. Five teachers (CH1, 5, 6, 7 and 8) explicitly
point out the importance of creating this kind of lively
atmosphere. With this dynamic, the classroom process is
student centered, although the teacher is the determining force. CH1 further imagines that the students can even
challenge the teacher academically.
The students could argue against their teachers by
raising their counter argument. This is the best indication of their active participation in their thinking.
Even sometimes when the teacher cannot convince
them during the class and has to study students
questions after class. I will still feel happy about that
communication.
However, CH1 adds with disappointment:
I never had a chance to have this kind of situation
where students argue against their teacher on mathematics problems during the class but only after class
occasionally.
The phenomena of not challenging the teacher during the
class may reveal a dilemma many Chinese students face. On
the one hand, they do think actively with many good ideas.
On the other hand, they still feel uncomfortable about
challenging the teacher publicly during the class. Instead
they wait and ask questions after class. This also reflects the
high level of authority Chinese teachers have in classrooms.
Flexible teaching Five teachers argue that the process
should be flexible, according to spontaneous classroom
situations (CH1, 2, 4, 7, and 8). For example, CH2 comments:
In terms of how to unfold a planned lesson, the teacher should always flexibly adjust his path according
to student status. After a student answered a question,
[I can find] what is still not understood by him. Then I
will continue explain it carefully. Therefore, I cannot
just rigorously follow the plan.
CH4 argues that the teacher should be sensitive to the
students puzzlement during the class and flexibly and
quickly solve problems. CH7 and 8 argue that the teacher
should design diversified classroom activities. They state
that learning through play is an effective way for young
students in the elementary level. This view expressed by
Chinese teachers is similar to what Ball viewed as teaching
a dilemma management (Ball, 1993).

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T. Wang, J. Cai

It should be noted that although the teachers realize the


importance of teaching flexibly, the degree of their
adjustment in the process is often constrained by required
content coverage and large classroom size. For example,
CH1 explicitly expressed the concern on these two aspects.
The advantage of it [teaching flexibly according to
students responses] is that the students can well
follow your [the teachers] mind and respond you
actively... However, it can make you lose control. If
you cannot control the class [to fulfill the plan], then
it will affect your teaching pace later. We have specific content to cover for every class. If you cannot do
this, it is very scary [for a teacher]...[in addition] we
often have more than 50 or 60 students in a class. You
cannot take care of each individual students need.
As a result, CH2 argues:
An effective lesson often has at least 85% of the
students understanding the concepts in the class.
To the remaining 15% of the students who do not understand in class, many Chinese teachers often give some
extra help after class (Wang, 2006).
Appropriately using concrete mathematics examples All
nine teachers recognize the critical role of using concrete
examples and tools in teaching elementary mathematics.
However, they have different views about whether students
should physically manipulate the tools and objects during
the process. CH7 argues that in order to understand a
concept clearly, students should physically operate the
concrete examples and tools. However, due to constraints
of time and class size, CH1, CH4 and CH6 argue that, in
real teaching, a teacher often just demonstrates the process
without having students manipulate the tools. Regardless of
whether the students should physically operate the concrete
tools and objects, these teachers recognize that a fundamental aim of using these tools is to facilitate student
understanding to transform concrete cognition into conceptual knowledge. Therefore they emphasize the crucial
role of teachers guidance and supervision during the
process of using tools.
In fact, three teachers (CH1, 4 and 6) point out that
when using the tools, the teacher should invite students to
think, compare, and infer what they observed. Although
CH7 believes that having students physically operating
tools is important, she also highlights students mathematical understanding through the teachers careful guidance during the physical operation. She uses an example to
illustrate how she guides students to understand the concept of the center of a circle and radius through the activity
of drawing a circle.

Chinese (Mainland) teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

Let students draw a circle by using a thumb nail, a


piece of string, and a pencil. Let them try to draw a
circle by themselves. But some students might have a
problem drawing a good circle. Then I will invite
students to pay attention to two critical steps, keeping
the nailed point stationary and tightening the thread.
Then I can ask them to look at the textbook to
understand corresponding mathematics concepts of
the unmoved point [center of a circle] and the
tightened thread [radius].
It is quite clear in this example, even when students
physically operate the tool, the teacher should consider
how physical participation might help understand the
mathematics concept instead of merely having fun.
Therefore, it is done for understanding.
In summary, Chinese teachers often have detailed and
well-structured lesson plans covering sufficient mathematical contents. Although an effective lesson is by no
means a process to read written lesson plan, the teachers do
see following a well designed and structured lesson plan as
a main feature of effective lesson. It seems that the teachers
tend to believe that the coherent lesson structure and sufficient practice are crucial in facilitating students understanding. In addition they also see teachers asking good
questions and appropriately using concrete tools and objects as effective approaches to provoke young students
deep thinking.
4 Discussion
Overall, Chinese teachers tend to view mathematics as an
abstract and coherent knowledge system that is refined
from real life mathematics problems. Therefore, on the one
hand they realize that mathematics comes from and should
be applied back to solving real issues; on the other hand,
they see mathematics is different from real life problems in
that it is abstract and coherent. Consequently, they believe
that the critical issue in mathematics learning is helping
students construct a coherent knowledge system. Recall
Ernests (1989) defined teachers views of mathematics
from two perspectives: the functional and structural perspectives, or the instrumental view and Platonist view.
While the instrumentalists pay more attention to the
functions of mathematics knowledge in the external world,
Platonists emphasize the complexity of the internal structure of the knowledge itself. It seems that although Chinese
teachers see pragmatic functions of mathematics, they tend
to emphasize more the structural feature of the knowledge
itself, especially when they discuss the mathematics
knowledge learned in classrooms. From this perspective,
Chinese teachers beliefs about the nature of mathematics
are close to the Platonist view in the Ernests dichotomy.

299

Their emphasis on the abstract and coherent nature of


mathematics can well explain why Chinese teachers consistently encourage students to solve problems using more
abstract and generalized approaches and represent the
solution processes symbolically (Cai, 2004).
In accordance with their view on the nature of mathematics, Chinese teachers see constructing a coherent
knowledge system as the key to mathematics understanding. Using Skemps (1978) terms of relational mathematics and instrumental mathematics, the knowledge
that Chinese teachers emphasize is obviously more relational than instrumental. For example, they see three
gradually developing sequential levels of mathematics: (1)
understanding-acquiring an abstract concept from real life
and concrete examples, (2) connecting conceptual knowledge pieces into a coherent structure, and (3) applying
knowledge flexibly to solve different problems. However,
they tend to emphasize student understanding on the second levelthe abstract level. They tend to see the first
level of understanding (concrete level) as a temporal and
transitional stage for the second level, and the third level
(flexibly applying knowledge) as a result of the second
level. Thus, these teachers emphasize that both learning
and teaching should help students to understand abstract
mathematics knowledge in a rational and coherent way.
Chinese teachers believe that practice and memorizing
are indispensable for mathematics learning. They believe
practice deepens understanding and consolidates knowledge. Chinese teachers emphasize that memorizing should
not be separated from understanding, but they believe that
memorization could come after or before-but-for understanding. This confirms the previous finding that Chinese
teachers believe that memorization does not necessarily
lead to rote learning; instead, it can be used to deepen
understanding.
Chinese teachers claim that effective lessons are largely
well planned before the class. Just like a good director and
performer of a stage play, an effective teacher in China
should be a virtuoso (Paine, 1990), who should be always passionate and have a clear commitment to his or her
profession. In preparing a lesson, the teacher should not
only understand the knowledge in the textbook thoroughly
but also design the details of classroom activities in a very
careful way. Although the teachers believe that good
teaching should be student centered, with this kind of finely
crafted script, usually there is not much room left for students to initiate questions in the classroom process. As a
result, the students have learned to follow closely what the
teacher has designed. This teacher-designed teaching
model does not necessarily mean that Chinese teachers do
not consider the students needs at all. In contrast, in preparing a lesson, Chinese teachers often consider carefully
what the difficult points are for the students, and the lesson

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300

plans provide various approaches to help students break


through the difficult points. However, the difficult points
that Chinese teachers carefully consider often reflect some
general needs of students at certain ages instead of particular needs of specific individuals. This confirms what
Wang and Murphy (2004) found that in Chinese mathematics classrooms the achieving of high coherence is often
at an expense of student individual voices.
This study confirms two important theoretical points
raised by Ernest in regard to mathematical teachers
belief system. First, this study confirms Ernests argument that teachers beliefs about the nature of mathematics provide a basis for the teachers mental models of
the teaching and learning of mathematics. The current
study shows Chinese teachers belief of mathematics as a
coherent and abstract knowledge system has a clear impact on their mental models of teaching and learning
mathematics. For example, they tend to emphasize
understanding of conceptual relationships, designing
coherent lessons, and leading the class through the lesson
plan. Second, this study confirms Ernests argument that
the teachers views about mathematics learning and
teaching are impacted by certain constraints and opportunities provided by the social context of teaching. It is
clear that there are often two different voices in the
teachers responses about effective teacher and teaching.
One is about ideal teaching and the other is about realistic teaching in Chinese classrooms. For example, most
Chinese teachers realize the importance of studentcentered teaching. However, due to the large classroom
size and broad coverage of content required by the national curriculum, the Chinese teachers often take into
consideration the general needs of students instead of
particular needs of individual students.
Acknowledgments The research discussed in this paper was supported by grants from the Spencer Foundation. Any opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the Spencer Foundation. We gratefully
acknowledge the valuable assistance of Chunghan Lu and Bingyi
Wang for data collection.

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