A variety of explanations has been given for the reasons why Chinese students perform exceptionally well in mathematics. When learning mathematics in any context, new ideas and concepts are introduced into students’ existing environments. It is the role of the student to deal with this novel idea or challenge, and this role is underpinned by the often tacit assumption that the goal of the teacher – that every student will try hard to learn and come to understand the new idea – is also the goal of each individual student. To attain this goal, a student must search an existing subjective action space to fi nd the appropriate action repertoires needed to reach the intended outcome. There are many reasons why this process – learning new mathematics ideas – goes astray. Students bring to the classroom a wide range of knowledge, beliefs, values and expectations derived from previous experiences, family backgrounds and personal traits, and these characteristics of the student impact on the success or otherwise of the learning endeavour.