Mr. Zhang Tianxiao has been a pioneer throughout his extensive career of 60 years in math research and teaching. Since his retirement, he has continued to pay close attention to math teaching research and devote most of his time to math textbook reform. Dissatisfied with the comprehensiveness of current math teaching texts, WIS has wanted to compile an English math textbook that best suits the needs of our students. Upon learning that Mr. Zhang Tianxiao had the same concern, we visited him at Zhejiang New Thinking Institute of Education Science, and share here some of his thoughts and insights.
Q: You have over 60 years of primary school math teaching experience and have witnessed the change and development of math education in China. In your opinion, what is the role of math education in a student's development?
A: Many people have misunderstandings about math and think it is very difficult to learn. Having observed so many reforms, I would conclude that the core of math education is building mathematical thinking skills. Developing students' ability to think is the root of math education. Mathematics is well recognized as thinking gymnastics. It can be highly abstract, requires strict logic and has a wide range of applications. Thinking, on the other hand, can be quite general and hierarchical. Mathematical thinking actually cultivates students' ability in abstract thinking. In future, no matter how math education changes, the most important contribution it will bring to human development is the improvement of thinking skills.
Q: Many people worldwide think that Chinese math education is very strong. In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of Chinese math education? How can we draw lessons from foreign experience?
A: Math problem solving is the most distinctive feature of Chinese math teaching. Starting from the ancient Chinese mathematics text Jiuzhang Arithmetic, we have focused on applying math to solve practical problems. We should retain the features of Chinese math while also learning from international experience. It is clear that our math education pays too much attention to the speed of computation and neglects the development of thinking skills. On the other hand, western education attaches great importance to training in thinking skills. Based on my experience in international exchange, curriculum reform and innovation should use Chinese math learning as a base and incorporate best western practices.
Q: You place great emphasis on the development of thinking skills. How can we cultivate this ability in math education?
A: As the old Chinese saying goes, "When you set your mind on a goal, do not attempt what is easy; when you decide to take on a task, do not avoid what is difficult." Letting students experience the joy of success is the heart of my teaching. Students should develop their thinking, generalization and reasoning abilities when solving practical problems. I have found that western education takes new approaches to simple operations of numbers under 20. For example, there are different ways of computing the simple operation of 5 times 7 equals 35. Our goal is to develop students thinking and strategies in these kinds of simple computations.
Q: Can you briefly introduce the textbook you are working on at present?
A: Well, it retains Chinese math characteristics but also incorporates western thinking practices. It is based on core math knowledge and focuses on math application problems. Students' math thinking ability will be greatly enhanced in the process of problem solving. Mathematics nurtures many ways of thinking that other disciplines do not, such as reverse calculation, equivalence and function. In addition, math skills such as modeling, reasoning, change and canceling out can greatly improve the quality of students' thinking and their ability to think quickly, flexibly, deeply, systematically and independently. The critical thinking in all disciplines advocated by WIS also applies to math thinking and requires us to take a holistic approach.
About Mr. Zhang Tianxiao
Mr. Zhang was born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province in 1937 and is a highly renowned and esteemed teacher and guest researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Psychology. He served as Principal of Shangcheng Teachers' Training School and was among the first group of experts chosen to participate in the National Training Plan. In 1999, 2007 and 2017, Mr. Zhang was awarded first prize in Zhejiang Basic Education and Instruction Achievement. He is the editor-in-chief of many textbooks used widely in elementary education. Over his 60 year career, he has devoted himself to compilation of math textbooks, educational reform research and teacher training. He has written over 200 professional publications and taken the lead role in compilation of five elementary math textbook series.