1 Introduction

East Asian students (and their parents) have been experiencing tremendous pressure and stress in schooling starting from the elementary years, due to reasons such as intense competition for employment opportunities, as well as cultural valuing of academic achievement. High-stakes, pre-tertiary national examinations in many East Asian education systems such as China, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore have been determining student access (or not) to prestigious universities in the respective countries (Prendergast & Zhang, 2016). Students in East Asia also spend significantly more time at school (generally 8.25 h per day in the case of China) and more time participating in extracurricular tutoring compared to students in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations (OECD, 2016; Prendergast & Zhang, 2016). According to PISA 2018, 78% of students in mainland China and 82% in Hong Kong worried about poor grades (versus OECD average of 56%), whilst 59% of mainland Chinese and only 52% of Hong Kong students (cf. OECD average of 67%) felt satisfied with their lives, constituting some of the lowest scores relative to other OECD nations (Schleicher, 2019). In this context, the Chinese government introduced several measures in mid-2021 to reduce the schooling pressure experienced by students in mathematics and other school subjects. Singapore also removed the mid-year examinations from all schools with effect from 2023 (Teng, 2022). This reflects a time in human history when there is greater-than-ever emphasis on student wellbeing globally (Waters, 2021).

Specific to mathematics education, East Asian jurisdictions outperform almost all other nations on international student mathematics assessments such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (Mullis et al., 2020; Schleicher, 2019). Yet at the same time many East Asian students experience poor affect and psychological outcomes in mathematics education. For example, East Asian secondary students are more likely to have higher mathematics anxiety, poorer self-efficacy and self-concept in mathematics compared to European students (Lee, 2009; Stankov, 2010; Wilkins, 2004). In China, primary students noted high learning stress in mathematics, with 70% of students and teachers, and 50% of parents reporting excessive student mathematics academic burden (Wang, 2021). Whilst 75% of primary students believed more than 2 h per night should be spent doing mathematics homework (the OECD recommends no more than 1 h per night), 13% of these students actually felt that more than three hours of mathematics homework each night was necessary (Wang, 2021). Wang concluded that the “excessive mathematics academic burden reduces sleep time and extracurricular activity time of primary school students [in China], and seriously affects their physical and mental health” (p. 7). These trends and negative psychological outcomes all point to a poor sense of student wellbeing in many East Asian classrooms both broadly at a whole school level and specifically to mathematics education. Here we define student wellbeing in mathematics—or ‘mathematical wellbeing’ [MWB]—as the fulfilment of core values (Tiberius, 2018) within the mathematics learning experience, accompanied by positive feelings (e.g., enjoyment, pride) and functioning (e.g. accomplishment, engagement) in mathematics (Huppert & So, 2013). That is, mathematical wellbeing is not only “feeling good and functioning well” (Huppert & So, 2013, p. 839) but also a positive state of functioning stemming from students’ experiences in the mathematics classroom aligning with their personal values.

This article reports on an explorative and descriptive study aimed at helping us develop some initial understanding of how to address the apparent lack of MWB amongst East Asian students. Specifically, we explored the sorts of learning moments in class that correspond to positive student mathematical wellbeing, the underlying values, and the extent to which these values reflect the dimensions of mathematical wellbeing reported in Western countries.

Our work with wellbeing draws on our subscription of the value fulfilment perspective (see, e.g., Tiberius, 2018). We focus on the primary years because this period is critical to students’ formal school education experiences, shaping the development of students’ wellbeing including mental health, social relationships, learning outcomes, and future accomplishments (Park, 2004). Also affective positions (generally comprising beliefs, attitudes, and emotions) in mathematics often begin positively in primary school and begin to decline over the schooling years (Grootenboer & Marshman, 2015). Additionally, we highlight Chinese students’ perspective of values and MWB because of the underrepresentation of Chinese data in the Western academic literature. More importantly, in the context of the current young, ‘tang ping’ (literally translated as ‘lying flat’) generations in China who are more ready to trade the busy rat race for leisure and minimalist lifestyles, the findings of this study will contribute to institutional understanding and planning.

2 Values

We regard values as the things individuals consider personally important, and as the foundation from which individuals base, plan, and judge their lives. Our understanding of values is rooted in educational psychology, through Eccles’ (1983) expectancy-value theory [EVT]. In the popular Eccles model, subjective values (regarding what is important) are conceptualised as impacting on achievement-related choices together with expectancy beliefs (regarding the chance of success). In particular, values express importance in terms of attainment, utility, and enjoyment.

However, values do not reside in individuals alone. In fact, culture and values are strongly connected, with culture being a value system organised formally and informally and serving to set norms and standards for people from different groups (McConatha & Schnell, 1995; Schwartz, 2012). Collectivist cultures (like East Asians, Pacific Island peoples) generally value relationship, family, closeness, social cohesion and conformity. Individualistic cultures (like Sweden, and the United States) often value autonomy, self-fulfilment, and assertiveness (Hofstede, 2011). In fact, the current iteration of EVT, situated expectancy-value theory [SEVT] (Eccles & Wigfield, 2020) also contextualises values in a sociocultural context, acknowledging such influencing factors as cultural milieu.

Valuing in mathematics education represents “an individual’s embracing of convictions in mathematics pedagogy which are of importance and worth personally” (Seah, 2019, p. 107). According to Schukajlow and Rellensmann (2022), “it is plausible to assume that students who value an activity are likely to engage in this activity, to gain higher proficiency in doing this activity, and to consequently report higher self-efficacy regarding the respective activity” (p. 3).

During the mid- to late 2010s the large-scale questionnaire-based ‘What I Find Important (in my mathematics learning)’ [WIFI] explored students’ values in mathematics education across several countries, focusing on students’ perceptions and experiences of effective (subjectively understood) mathematics teaching and learning (Seah & Wong, 2012). For instance, Zhang et al. (2016) analysed the data of 1383 Grades 5–6 students in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, finding that ethnic Chinese students across these East Asian jurisdictions valued achievement, relevance, practice, communication, feedback, and ICT with statistically significant differences between and amongst the three Chinese regions for each of the six value components. Seah et al. (2017) found that primary and secondary students in Hong Kong and Japan valued cognitions (through such instrumental valuing as recall, alternative approaches, and understandings), accomplishments (e.g., results, tests), relationships (e.g., feedback, peer support), meaning (e.g., real world applications), and perseverance (e.g., effort, practice). On the other hand, Chinese primary students reported the valuing of ultimate values such as perseverance (e.g., effort), accomplishment (e.g., smartness), meaning (e.g., relevance), cognitions (e.g., memory), accomplishment (e.g. achievement), as well as engagement and enjoyment (Zhang, 2019; Zhang et al., 2016).

However, the WIFI studies were investigating only values related to student achievement in mathematics, and so the findings could not be extrapolated to values supporting enjoyment and wellbeing in East Asian jurisdictions. After all, a student can score low (or high) on accomplishments yet still have high (or low) wellbeing. High student achievement coupled with poor wellbeing are perhaps more prevalent in highly competitive East Asian countries as positioned in our introduction. To this end, our current study explores the values espoused by Chinese primary school students which are aligned with their wellbeing in mathematics education.

3 Wellbeing

The concept of ‘wellbeing’—also termed happiness, flourishing, or thriving—has many uses and conceptualisations across different disciplines (Chia et al., 2020). Here we focus on subjective conceptualisations of wellbeing encompassing both hedonia (i.e., positive emotions and happiness) and eudaemonia (e.g., optimal functioning, achieving potentials, meaning, values, goals, and mastery) (Huppert & So, 2013). Whilst many wellbeing models exist, influential models would include Seligman’s (2011) five-dimensional PERMA wellbeing model, which emphasises positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. For adolescents, Kern et al. (2016) proposed the EPOCH model, that is engagement, perseverance, optimism, connectedness, and happiness respectively. PISA considers four components of student wellbeing in schools, namely, psychological, cognitive, physical, and social (OECD, 2015). Whilst different models assert different wellbeing components, there are also similarities. For instance, the optimism, happiness, and psychological components generally represent positive emotions; whereas the connectedness and social wellbeing components reflect positive relationships. As such, Table 1 shows how our operating model of MWB in this explorative and descriptive study incorporates many of the models mentioned above.

Table 1 MWB values identified by Hill et al. (2022)

Wellbeing is context specific due to the differences in underlying values (Alexandrova, 2017; Tiberius, 2018). Because of these value differences, the experiences or conditions supporting wellbeing likely differ across personal, cultural, and contextual conditions. This is one reason why the current study is being conducted with students from China as an example of a collectivist culture which emphasises social cohesion. Accordingly, fulfilling relationships values might be especially important for the wellbeing of members of such cultures. Specific to school education, what a student values when learning mathematics likely differs from arts or language education, thus conditions necessary for wellbeing across these subjects also likely differ.

4 A Value Fulfilment Model of Mathematical Wellbeing

A value fulfilment perspective of MWB proposes that high MWB results from maximum fulfilment of values, particularly ultimate values (Tiberius, 2018), in the context of learning mathematics, accompanied by positive feelings (e.g. happiness), and optimal functioning (e.g. mathematical engagement, a sense of meaning, purpose or accomplishment) (Huppert & So, 2013). Values are part of one’s own point of view determining how well life goes and there can be large variation in how a value-fulfilled life operates for different people. Tiberius asserts each individual has a hierarchy of values with ‘ultimate values’ at the highest level, which are the things valued for their own sake like relationships and happiness. Ultimate values are most impactful on our wellbeing because they activate our emotions, motivations and cognitions. Underneath these are ‘instrumental values’, these being anything an individual values to achieve the ultimate values. For instance, students might fulfil relationships (an ultimate value) through groupwork , teacher–student relationships, or respect (all instrumental values). Instrumental values can also contribute to wellbeing, however their contribution depends on the value to which they are a means (i.e., their ultimate value/s). While individuals can hold many different instrumental values, ultimate values are thought to transcend cultures and individuals (Tiberius, 2018).

A student who values fun and peer collaboration will likely feel good and engage more when they enjoy their learning, and have opportunities to work with their peers. Thus, if the pedagogy of the mathematics classroom aligns with this student’s personal values, their MWB will be enhanced and they might feel more optimistic and see mathematical challenges as doable and engaging.

Hill, Kern, Seah and van Driel (2022) undertook a scoping review of the mathematics values literature to investigate culturally diverse students’ ultimate and instrumental values in mathematics education. Using a combined inductive/deductive thematic strategy, they analysed 40 publications from across six continents. They discovered that students espoused 90 unique instrumental values in mathematics education (see Hill, 2022) with subsequent theoretically driven top down (deductive) analysis categorising these instrumental values into ultimate values derived from the wellbeing literature (e.g., Kern et al., 2016; OECD, 2015; Seligman, 2011). Table 1 presents the seven emergent MWB ultimate values (column 1), descriptions identified from the literature (column 2), sources of the deductive model (column 3), and examples of instrumental mathematics values taken from the scoping review (column 4). The authors contended that instrumental mathematics values sometimes serve multiple ultimate values, for instance valuing teacher explanations can afford the valuing of relationships (e.g., teacher providing support), cognitions (e.g., facilitating better understanding), and/or accomplishment (e.g., explanations enhance mathematical accuracy).

In this context, the following Research Questions guided the conduct of the current explorative and descriptive study:

  1. 1.

    To what extent do Chinese elementary school students rate teacher-nominated learning moments as important for their mathematical wellbeing?

  2. 2.

    What ultimate values are reflected through the learning moments which Chinese primary school students rated as important for their mathematical wellbeing?

5 Methods

5.1 Participants

The participants for the current explorative and descriptive study were 258 students from six Grade 3 classes, aged between eight and nine years of age. Three mathematics teachers taught two of these classes each, in a mid-sized government school in Chengdu, a mid-West city in China. The teachers are in their twenties and early thirties, thus considered relatively young. They are considered by their colleagues to be progressive in their professional practices.

5.2 Data collection

The data was collected in 2021 using an anonymous student questionnaire completed during class time. Because young children often struggle to articulate their values and wellbeing (Gillett-Swan, 2017), and traditional Likert type scales are generally not reliable for primary aged children (Mellor & Moore, 2014), a new questionnaire was designed (see Fig. 1). This was translated from Chinese into English for this article by the second author and one of the Chinese mathematics teacher participants, and used in preference to existing mathematics values surveys (e.g., WIFI).

Fig. 1
figure 1

The questionnaire documenting mathematics learning moments and instrumental values associated with students’ wellbeing (translated into English)

Here our questionnaire was based on the three-point scale like the one adapted by Wright and Asmundson (2003). Wright and Asmundson simplified the original five-point Illness Attitude Scale to a three-point scale to make it more easily understood by children. Our questionnaire invited students to respond to: Which of the learning moments below are associated with you feeling happy and well when you are learning mathematics? The extent to which different learning moments made each student feel happy and well was assessed through colouring. As asserted by Baroutsis et al. (2019), “the choices children intentionally make with marks, colour and other media, … give insight into how children perceive and participate within activities” (p. 177). Thus, using coloured pencils, students indicated the degree of importance of 21 classroom learning moments for their wellbeing when learning mathematics. If a student felt a learning moment was extremely important for their mathematical wellbeing, they coloured the learning moment yellow; if important it was coloured green; if not important the learning moment would be left uncoloured. Collecting responses through children colouring also provided us with assurance that three options (instead of five) in the questionnaire minimised potential confusion, arising from the cognitive load associated with using five colours.

These 21 mathematics learning moments were nominated by the Chinese teacher participants to represent typical activities or experiences observed in Chinese Grade 3 mathematics classrooms that might support the student's happiness or positive functioning in mathematics. The three teachers had drawn on their experience and their knowledge of their students to identify and agree on the 21 learning moments. Each of these learning moments represents one mathematics instrumental value. For example, the learning moment ‘when your perseverance brings about progress in your mathematic learning’ represented the instrumental valuing of perseverance. Previous mathematics education values research used similar methods to elicit students’ values—that is using mathematics learning activities to probe underlying values (e.g., Hill, 2018; Hunter, 2021; Österling & Andersson, 2013).

5.3 Data analysis

For research question one, each learning moment was coded as 1 every time a student rated it as important or extremely important (i.e., coloured yellow or green), or 0 if not important (i.e., no colouring). Total frequency counts for each learning moment were then calculated by adding these numbers together, giving the proportion of students who associated each learning moment with their MWB. For example, the learning moment achieving high scores totalled to 249 representing 97% of students (i.e., 249/258) valuing high scores for their MWB.

To determine the instrumental values served by each learning moment, the second author (who is of Chinese descent) and the Chinese teachers discussed and agreed on what values were represented by the learning moments. This approach privileges culturally-meaningful interpretations of practices in the (mathematics) classroom, and it was particularly useful for the 101 student inputs for the ‘other’ item. An interrater reliability analysis using Cohen’s Kappa was performed to determine the consistency between the teacher and second authors coding of learning moments into instrumental values. A substantial interrater reliability was found between the two coders, κ = 0.88, 95% CI [0.75, 1], p < 0.001. Differences in ratings for three values were then discussed and agreement reached on how to best code them.

Concerning research question two, the first and second authors used an inductive thematic strategy (Braun & Clarke, 2006), independently coding the instrumental values into the set of seven ultimate values identified in an earlier related study (Hill et al., 2021, 2022) as a starting point. The guiding questions in this process was what might be the personal importance which this value serves? Would this be represented by any one of the seven ultimate values identified by Hill et al (2021)? If not, what might this ultimate value be? For instance, family support, teacher explanation, and peer support are likely valued to fulfil positive relationships (an ultimate value). Cohen’s Kappa demonstrated a substantial interrater reliability between the two raters’ coding of instrumental into ultimate values κ = 0.81, 95% CI [0.65, 0.97], p < 0.001. Differences in ratings for five values were then discussed and agreed upon.

6 Results

The 21 teacher nominated learning moments and the corresponding instrumental values are shown in Table 2. Each instrumental value could be categorised into one of seven MWB ultimate values (column three of Table 2) identified from earlier MWB studies (Hill et al., 2021), even though both researchers were mindful and open to other ultimate values that might be better served by the instrumental values being considered.

Table 2 Summary of the learning moments, corresponding mathematics instrumental and potential ultimate values

Figure 2 shows the proportion of students who associated each of the learning moments with their MWB ordered by frequency count and grouped by the corresponding ultimate values. Notably, most students (between 79 and 97%) associated each of the 21 teacher nominated learning moments as important for their MWB. The learning moments achieving good marks (ultimate value: accomplishment); fun and interesting mathematics, pedagogies involving mathematics related videos (both corresponding to the ultimate value engagement); and teacher praise (relationships) most often corresponded to students’ MWB.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Distribution of learning moments by ultimate values. Note. The solid bars are the 21 teacher nominated learning moments and corresponding % of students associating it with their MWB. The dotted bars are ‘other’ learning moments nominated by individual students

The 21 teacher nominated learning moments aligned with six out of the seven MWB ultimate values identified by Hill et al., (2021, 2022), namely, accomplishments, engagement, meaning, perseverance, positive emotions, and relationships. The seventh MWB ultimate value, cognitions, was not associated with any of the teacher nominated learning moments. However, two students nominated cognitions as important for their MWB. As can be seen in Fig. 2, the teacher-nominated learning moments were associated most with accomplishment (corresponding to 7/21 learning moments), then engagement (5/21), relationships (4/21), perseverance (2/21), positive emotions (2/21) and meaning (1/21).

In terms of individual teacher nominated learning moments, it can also be seen in Fig. 2 that four of these attracted the greatest number of agreements (249 out of 258 students each, that is, 97%). The four learning moments were:

  • when you obtained good results in your mathematics learning.

  • when your mathematics teacher praises you.

  • when you attended a fun and interesting mathematics lesson.

  • when you watch mathematics-related videoclips during mathematics class.

7 Discussion

Despite a burgeoning interest in student wellbeing globally, particularly following the COVID19 pandemic, little research attention has focused on wellbeing in individual subjects like mathematics. Yet, the prevalence of mathematics anxiety amongst students, and of societal negative attitudes to mathematics, for examples, are not new phenomena. They indicate that poor student MWB is widespread. In addition, across most if not all the top-performing East Asian jurisdictions, students face significant academic pressures and high workloads in mathematics education which can contribute to poor affect, sleep disturbances, and reduced leisure time (e.g., Stankov, 2010; Wang, 2021). To begin the work of understanding and addressing poor MWB in East Asian mathematics education systems, we examined in this explorative and descriptive study the mathematics learning moments corresponding to positive student MWB—and their underlying values—in Grade 3 primary school lessons in Chengdu, China. Our results pointed to three major findings:

  1. 1.

    whilst students valued all 21 learning moments to some extent for their MWB, interesting and fun lessons; lessons involving mathematics related videos; high marks; and teacher praise were rated particularly highly;

  2. 2.

    there were seven ultimate values (i.e., accomplishment, cognitions, engagement, meaning, perseverance, positive emotions, and relationships) identified across the learning moments, aligning with the ultimate values reported with Australian students (Hill et al., 2021); and

  3. 3.

    the Chinese Grade 3 teachers perceived that student MWB was mostly about serving the valuing of accomplishment, then engagement and relationships in the mathematics classroom

7.1 Learning moments that foster MWB

At least 79% of the Chinese students rated each of the 21 teacher-nominated learning moments as contributing to their sense of MWB, as can be seen in Fig. 2. In fact, nine of the 21 teacher-nominated learning moments were rated as important by at least 90% of the students. Thus, it appears that the teachers and their students shared opinions about the mathematics learning moments which foster MWB. Indeed, only ten students suggested additional learning moments; that none of these additional learning moments was nominated by more than one student means that they may not be pedagogical activities that appeal to many students with regards to fostering MWB.

Among the 21 teacher nominated moments, 4 were rated by nearly all (i.e., 97%) the students (see Sect. 6). The instrumental values which these learning moments embody, and the ultimate values which are being served, are listed in Table 2 (specifically, learning moments nos.1, 5, 9 and 15). These four highest rated learning moments are unpacked in the following sections.

Receiving praise from (mathematics) teachers was regarded by nearly all the Grade 3 students in China to foster their MWB. This reflects the instrumental value affirmation, that is feeling encouraged, recognised, or respected, and cared for by the teacher. Chinese (and Hong Kong) students’ valuing of positive relationships with their mathematics teachers is well recognised, like quality teacher–student interactions, teachers understanding students’ needs, and personalised help (Law et al., 2012; Mok et al., 2013; Seah et al., 2017; Tang et al., 2021). Law et al. asserted that Hong Kong students valued mathematics when teachers used incentives and rewards to encourage effort. Chinese born students in Australia valued their teacher more than peer relationships for their MWB, whereas the opposite was true for the Australian and European students (Hill et al., 2021). This might be because East Asians have high power distance values, meaning authoritative figures (e.g., teachers) are often revered (Hofstede, 2011).

Across Chinese secondary mathematics classrooms, Wang et al. (2019) proposed that greater teacher praise was associated with students holding more positive mathematics beliefs and conceptions about their achievement. Yet, over 70% of these students reported receiving little to no teacher praise. High quality teacher–student relationships help support students’ academic motivation, engagement, performance, self-esteem, and wellbeing (Eccles, 2004). However, mathematics education across the world often centres on developing cognitive aspects (e.g., skills and understanding) rather than supporting quality relationships. A greater emphasis on relationships in mathematics, particularity teacher noticing and praise, may promote Chinese students' MWB.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Chinese students equated funness and interesting learning with their happiness in mathematics learning, for it aligns with the intrinsic value of EVT (Eccles, 1983). It is easy to understand why, especially from a student’s perspective, that fun and interesting experiences during a mathematics lesson bring about a sense of feeling good and functioning well, that is, MWB. Yet what specific experiences contribute to this (instrumental) valuing of fun is difficult to discern here. For examples, fun might be achieved through games, peer collaboration, or humour in the mathematics classroom. Future investigations might clarify what activities correspond with Chinese students’ (and teachers’) valuing of fun.

This valuing of fun and interesting mathematics by Chinese students is aligned with studies such as Norton and Zhang (2013); Mok et al. (2013); as well as Zhang and Seah (2015). For example, from a class of Chinese secondary students over half valued effective mathematics teaching and learning when their lessons were fun and enjoyable (Zhang & Seah, 2015). Chinese primary students valued a sense of enjoyment, fun and interesting mathematics, however, very few of these students cited this as the main factor for working hard because they were more motivated by extrinsic factors like pleasing parents (Norton & Zhang, 2013). Several other studies which investigated Chinese students’ valuing of mathematics learning did not appear to identify fun (e.g., Seah et al., 2017; Tang et al., 2021; Zhang et al., 2016). In contrast to these earlier studies, here we focus on values supporting MWB rather than values facilitating successful and effective learning. Thus, students from this study might have considered broader, more holistic aspects of their mathematics learning in addition to traditional Chinese Confucian values like accomplishments and pleasing parents (i.e., filial piety).

The third of the four most popular learning moments relates to students attaining good results in their mathematics learning. This learning moment contributes to the instrumental valuing of achievement. Indeed, attaining accomplishment through achieving high marks was also valued highly by 249 students (97%) to support their MWB, and is aligned with the attainment value of EVT (Eccles, 1983). The valuing of academic achievement by Chinese students has been reported elsewhere (Seah et al., 2017; Zhang, 2019; Zhang et al., 2016). For instance, Zhang et al. (2016) reported that students across mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan rated achievement as most important—and thus, valued—for their mathematics learning, with the mainland China students rating it the highest. Chinese students experience stronger parental encouragement and educational expectations towards mathematics education than do many Western students (Cao et al., 2007) which are often accompanied by tremendous pressure and obligations to the family (Zhang et al., 2016). Therefore, East Asian students may value high marks to fulfill personal and family academic expectations, which in turn further supports students’ MWB. Alternatively, or concurrently, the economies of the high-performing East Asian countries tend to emphasise the paper qualifications of job seekers. Thus, achieving well in one’s studies (especially for important subjects such as mathematics) is a passport to university entry and to better jobs thereafter. Either way, this may explain to some extent why East Asian students consistently outperform other nations on international assessments like TIMSS and PISA.

Last but not least, the Chinese students also rated the classroom activity of watching mathematics-related videoclips highly in terms of its capacity to foster MWB. This corresponds to a valuing of multimodality, which serves the ultimate valuing of engagement. A valuing of multimodality essentially emphasises the pedagogical power of learning through exposure to different modes of representations, like visual, digital, descriptive etc. Valuing multimodal representations in mathematics has been reported among Australian and Swedish students (Seah & Peng, 2012) but not studies with East Asian students (e.g., Seah et al., 2017; Zhang, 2019). A possible reason why it was documented in our Chinese data is that the teachers have been progressive in their practice, and willing to risk trying novel teaching approaches even though they reflect one of the long-held beliefs in mathematics education. For example, the concrete—pictorial—abstract [CPA] approach to (mathematics) learning was proposed by Bruner (1966), and has been a feature of Singapore mathematics over the last few decades. Gutierrez et al. (2010) viewed “mathematics as a multimodal and multi-semiotic activity” (p. 32).

7.2 The ultimate values supporting students’ MWB

As shown in Fig. 2, the 31 learning moments (of which 21 were nominated by the teachers and 10 were identified by their Grade 3 students) reflect instrumental values that in turn serve ultimate values. These ultimate values correspond to the whole range of seven dimensions of MWB which Hill et al. (2021) had conceptualised from their work with Australian secondary students. Thus, it appears from this exploratory study that the seven dimensions of MWB are invariant across countries (Australia and China) as well as across school systems (elementary and secondary). In other words, we believe that in fostering MWB amongst school students, the ultimate values that need to be fulfilled might be universal. That is, regardless of the cultural context, MWB is a function of student realisation of the valuing of accomplishment, cognitions, engagement, meaning, perseverance, positive emotions, and relationships.

There have been examples elsewhere of values staying relevant across cultures and contexts. Schwartz’s (1992) ten basic human values may seem to be ambitious, but the conception has been supported by empirical data, and it works because these values fulfil the same universal needs for human existence, such as social interaction. Bishop’s (1996) proposal of the category of ‘general educational values’ also made reference to universal values like honesty which apply anywhere in human societies. Park and Peterson (2008) developed their Values in Action (VIA) inventory, measuring 24 universally valued character strengths supporting moral competence and wellbeing such as curiosity, or zest.

We have noted in the last section the four equally most popular learning moments associated with MWB, each of which was ‘voted’ by 249 of the 258 students (representing 97%). Together, they serve three ultimate values which are accomplishment, engagement, and relationships. Referring to Fig. 2, we can also see how most of the other popular learning moments also serve these three ultimate values. While these moments provide us with a useful focus in our future work researching MWB in cross-cultural contexts, we will briefly discuss the relative prominence that the three ultimate values enjoy in fostering Chinese students’ MWB.

Amongst these three popular ultimate values, the valuing of accomplishment and engagement was especially striking to us initially. One would expect students to tell us (through their questionnaire responses) that their sense of wellbeing in mathematics learning has been derived from being able to fulfil and realise the valuing of the likes of positive emotions and perhaps, meaning as well. After all, when one is experiencing positive emotions, one would be having a good time and feeling happy and positive. Similarly, when a student can see that the mathematics work they are doing is meaningful, it would be expected that the student would be feeling good and functioning well. On the other hand, valuing and realising accomplishment and engagement can be hardwork, involving focus, attention and dedication to say the least. Yet, while student ratings of positive emotions and meaning were high—and may well be ‘fed’ by the fulfilment of the other dimensions too—the greatest number of Chinese students noted they would be experiencing positive MWB particularly when they were engaged and accomplishing.

That fact that this study took place in China has allowed us to reflect on the potential effects of cultural differences between China and the West, with the latter shaping much of what we currently understand about wellbeing (in the West). Relatively more collectivistic societies such as China have been known to understand the role of hedonic experiences in promoting wellbeing differently (Joshanloo et al., 2021). Other factors may have been at play in the Chinese classroom context that explain how eudaimonic experiences might be preferred there, arising from a cultural belief that hedonic happiness is not as important as other values, because it is constantly changing (with unhappiness), or is too much of a high-arousal emotion (Joshanloo et al., 2021).

The emphasis among the Chinese students of fulfilling the valuing of relationships in the development of MWB is also attributable to the relatively collectivistic culture that characterises the Chinese society. For the Chinese students, being praised by their mathematics teachers is not so much an achievement for the individual self, but more of being affirmed by the teacher, and being in the teacher’s ‘good book’. It is the sort of relationship that (Chinese) students wish to establish at school, the realisation of which evokes positive MWB amongst the students involved. For example, Norton and Zhang (2013) reported Chinese mathematics students willingly volunteered to help teachers with chores, not as a punishment but as a cultural ritual emphasising commitment, respect, and responsibility. This interpretation of relationships is often referred to as the Chinese societal concept of guanxi, which is the phonetic representation of a Chinese term that literally means ‘relationship’. In Bian’s (2019) words, guanxi refers to “a dyadic, particular, and sentimental tie that has the potential for facilitating the exchange of favors between the two parties connected by the tie” (p.3). This interpretation of relationships is thus different from how it is in the West; for example, Hill et al. (2021) defined this value as “having supportive relationships with others, believing one is valued and cared for, connected with others, or supporting peers in mathematics” (p.5). With this meaning in mind, it is worth noting that in similar studies conducted in Australia (Hill et al, 2021), New Zealand (Hunter, 2021) and Sweden (Österling et al., 2015), relationships are also most highly valued.

Learning moments associated with mathematical cognitions were identified by only two students, whilst none of the three teachers nominated any learning moment which feeds into this value. Cognitions refers to the mathematical knowledge, skills and/or understandings required to do mathematics at school. Instrumental values such as efficiency and understanding serve to foster cognitions. Our Chinese data suggest that perhaps it is not as highly valued as the other six ultimate values associated with positive MWB. In fact, given the opportunity to nominate any learning moment in their mathematics lessons which foster MWB, the teachers did not refer to any such moment as they were applied to the students. We wonder if for the Chinese students, wellbeing in their respective mathematics learning might be derived more from fulfilling the ultimate values that are the products of effective learning and understanding (i.e., accomplishment and engagement), rather than the ultimate values associated with this learning and understanding. Cognitions might not be visible to a Chinese teacher, since each lesson might be viewed as cognition itself. In the West, mathematics lessons may have objectives that are not just associated with cognitions, but perhaps also other objectives that are more affective or motivational in nature. If this is the case in a Chinese classroom, then, it is not likely that the teacher there will nominate a learning moment that promotes cognitions, since the lessons themselves are cognitions.

7.3 The ultimate values teachers associate with student MWB

In this study, the three Chinese primary mathematics teachers nominated the learning moments which they believed best supported their students’ MWB. Thus, these learning moments might reflect the values which the teachers themselves associated with MWB. The greatest proportion of these learning moments (7 out of the 21 learning moments nominated) corresponded to accomplishments, followed by engagement (5 out of 21 learning moments), and relationships (4 out of 21). This suggests that these three ultimate values, and especially accomplishments, are perhaps most salient in Chinese primary mathematics classrooms in relation to fostering MWB. The cultural focus on eudaimonic experiences is thus also manifested by these teacher-nominated learning moments, reflecting the dominance of what Hofstede (1997) called long-term orientation and/or the embracing of a deep-seated tradition of ‘no pain, no gain’ that is passed from one generation to another proudly, just as the teachers here were probably doing.

8 Looking ahead

For the cohort of Chinese primary school students, their MWB was associated with the embracing of 31 unique instrumental values, as listed in Fig. 2. These 31 instrumental values supported the fulfilment of 7 ultimate values which in turn led to the students feeling happy and learning functioning well in the process of learning mathematics.

The value fulfillment perspective positions MWB as the realization of a student's values whilst learning mathematics. The role of the mathematics teacher is crucial here, not least because their pedagogical activities in class provide students with varying opportunities to fulfil what the latter value. What appears to be evident through our study is that the teachers know very well what these learning moments for fostering MWB are. This means that the potential for teachers and students’ values for MWB to be misaligned is much reduced.

In this context, for the 258 Grade 3 students in Chengdu, China, there was a very high agreement (between 79 and 97%) with the 21 learning moments associated with positive MWB as nominated by their teachers. Four learning moments, namely, obtaining good results, fun and interesting mathematics lesson, watching mathematics-related videoclips, and receiving teacher praise, were each rated by 97% of the students as being important for positive MWB.

Altogether, 21 learning moments were nominated by the three teachers and another 10 were identified by the students as being important for positive MWB. Analysis of the ultimate values that are served by these 31 learning moments revealed that they can also be represented by the same seven dimensions of MWB that had been constructed in a Western context. These MWB dimensions are accomplishment, cognitions, engagement, meaning, perseverance, positive emotions, and relationships. However, even though the dimensions may be the same across different cultural contexts, it was found in this study that the emphases placed on each individual dimension in fostering positive MWB differ across different cultures.

The decision to elicit student responses through teacher-nominated learning moments instead of, say, through open-ended student identification of (instrumental) values has been intentional, as explained in Sect. 5.2. While this has been a useful characteristic of this study, there is also the possibility that student responses had been restricted by the question type given to them. Nevertheless, this limitation in the research design has yielded for us the useful and important findings regarding the invariance of the seven MWB dimensions. Future research studies that might be motivated by the current study could thus consider alternative question types which better capture the broad range of responses that students may provide, such as through student drawings of the moments when they were feeling good and functioning well in their mathematics learning.

This study has been conceptualised to be exploratory in nature. While the topic is significant enough for us to embark on this research journey, the global pandemic situation that began in 2020 restricted the number of participants we could have access to. This has introduced a limitation to the study, which resulted in our decision not to apply any statistical analysis to the limited data we had collected.

Academic wellbeing, of which MWB is a component, is related to motivation and the EVT (Salmela-Aro, 2020). Thus, in the context of Hannula’s (2012) conception of the cognition-emotion-motivation model, our work on fostering mathematical wellbeing complements ongoing efforts by mathematics education colleagues on facilitating students’ cognitive and affective growth in mathematics learning. Students with positive MWB are ready to thrive in their mathematics learning, and are motivated to engage in deepening their understanding of mathematical knowledge, as well as in developing their efficacy and confidence in deploying learnt skills.

As school education systems around the world increasingly emphasise the importance of fostering student wellbeing in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic (Kuhfeld et al., 2020; Schwartz et al., 2021; Victoria DET, 2022), the roles played by values in fostering and maintaining student wellbeing in mathematics and other subjects become ever more prominent. The findings of this study also throw a cautionary message, which is that even if the MWB dimensions might be the same across different cultural contexts, the instrumental values serving them—as well as the learning moments and other tasks—can be different or take on different priorities.