Expert questions 'inch deep' formula for teaching maths in UK schools
UK schoolchildren are falling behind in maths because lessons in the subject are "a mile wide and an inch deep", according to an international education expert.
Andreas Schleicher, of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggested that much maths teaching is "superficial" focusing on memorisation and learning facts, rather than mathematical concepts.
"One of the things that we see when you look at high-performing education systems in maths, they typically have three things in the curriculum, one is rigour, the second is focus and the third is coherence.
"Rigour means really having a high level of cognitive demand, and the UK is not doing well on it. Basically, the UK has a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep, in the sense that a lot of the learning in maths is rather superficial."
He suggested that maths teaching in the UK tends to be over-complicated, rather than taught in a simple fashion to ensure pupils grasp a concept.
In comparison, East Asian education systems - which traditionally top international league tables - teach fewer topics in more depth and put a much great emphasis on understanding.
"The typical problems that students encounter in maths in England is relatively simple mathematics, embedded in a kind of complex context," Mr Schleicher said.
He added: "Basically, the mathematics may not be very demanding, but they're presented to students in a context that makes it sort of difficult."
"You don't see that sort of teaching in China or Singapore," Mr Schleicher said. "What those countries do, is they put an emphasis on 'do children understand the foundations? Can they think like a mathematician, can they think like a scientist, or can they think like an historian?' They really put the emphasis on deep conceptual understanding, for example do students know what probability is?"
He went on: "In fact, when you think about memorisation, rote learning, many people 'I ask who comes out on top (in this)?', they will say China. England comes out on top. There is a lot of emphasis on the memorisation of a relatively shallow knowledge, where students have much fewer exposure to the deep under-pinning concepts."
Speaking ahead of the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai this weekend, Mr Schleicher said that following the global financial crisis, many countries, including the UK, said that students needed to be more financially literate.
But when the results of the OECD's major programme for international student assessment (Pisa) tests - which assess students around the world on areas such as literacy and numeracy, were published, the students who did best at financial literacy were those from Shanghai, who had not been taught financial education, but knew how to think mathematically, and can apply that knowledge.
Mr Schleicher said that the UK is not doing badly in international tests, but is still far away from the highest performing systems.
The latest Pisa tests, published in 2013, put England in 26th place for maths, behind areas include Singapore, Taiwan, Shanghai, South Korea and Japan.
England's education system is undergoing radical reform, including an overhaul of the curriculum and the introduction of new, tougher GCSEs and A-levels.