Chinese Crackers – Hampshire pupils taste Chinese education in BBC fly-on-the-wall doc

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Your pupils are too cosseted by the Welfare State, one Chinese teacher told the head of Bohunt School during an experiment introducing Chinese teaching methods to English pupils. Pupils would have to knuckle down, she said, if benefits were cut drastically. They couldn’t rely on the state to care for them if they didn’t get a job. This featherbedding resulted in laziness.

That reducing benefits considerably would lead to an increase in black economy employment and criminality seemed to have escaped her. Or that gaining work doesn’t just rely on educational qualifications but on the availability of jobs. And she couldn’t be expected to know that in-work poverty outstripped out-of-work poverty in the UK for the first time in 2012.

Fifty pupils joined a mega-class taught by one teacher. They began in traditional fashion with pupils bowing to show respect to the teacher. But the significance of the teacher bowing was missed. The teacher was also (in theory at least) showing respect for the pupils*.

Pupil Sophie, however, wasn’t impressed. She took umbrage when the teacher said English pupils were three years behind Chinese students in Maths in PISA tests. Sophie was clear – she was being called dumb. But had Sophie known the background to PISA tests in China she would have been less insulted. First, the supposed ‘three years’ head start of Chinese pupils only refers to Shanghai not the whole of China. Second, a quarter of the last PISA cohort was missing from the last Shanghai PISA test (2012) – this makes the results unreliable. Even Toby Young says ‘there are good reasons for treating the Shanghai data with a pinch of salt’.

Maths, it was claimed, would be improved by the ‘Chinese’ method whereby the teacher solely explains diagrams on the board. Some pupils couldn’t keep up; others didn’t understand. But there were some who actually liked being told things and soaked up the information.

Science, too, was taught by demonstrating experiments rather than pupils doing them. They were expected to write notes not investigate. It appeared getting the answers correct was more important than understanding.

It would be unfair to say all lessons were explaining from the front. And it would be wrong to say explaining doesn’t have a place in a teacher’s repertoire. There are times when learners need to be told. But they need to do something with the knowledge not just regurgitate it for tests. It is a Chinese proverb, remember, which says ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ **

Neither is it fair to say pupils were always disruptive as was implied. Such fly-on-the-wall documentaries are edited. We saw copious examples of pupils not on task, chatting or being inattentive. More of this is promised in future episodes. But there were occasional glimpses when pupils were engaged: cooking and eating Chinese food; being creative, performing a co-ordinated fan dance. These were usually over in seconds.

One example of the latter which was given extensive coverage was when pupils were asked to solve the Chinese ring puzzle. Joe, the rubik cube whizz who came last in the running test, was first to finish and given the task of teaching the others. Pupils and teacher were interested, engaged and enjoyed what they were doing.

But are we being misled about modern-day Chinese methods? Are they really just note taking and memorization? Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths, visited Shanghai in 2014. He expected rote learning but instead found ‘teaching that emphasised deep conceptual understanding’. A typical maths lesson included a short exposition followed by working through ‘carefully constructed exercises’. Pupils were encouraged to discuss with fellow pupils. (Schools minister, Nick Gibb, remember, thinks discussions in class are mere ‘chat’).

Although Stripp saw much to applaud, he had lingering questions. These included how representative the schools were that he visited and what happened to children who couldn’t keep up. A comment by lemonflavour under Stripp’s article said not every lesson was as Stripp had witnessed – other lessons were devoted to feedback. Maths teachers, lemonflavour said, had considerable support from advisers which reduced the need for planning and increased time available for feedback. Mathematics was highly prized by parents – this in turn increased pupil effort.

So what we are seeing may not necessarily be Chinese education as really practised (at least in Shanghai). We are witnessing an edited documentary which prioritises what we expect to see (Chinese teachers pontificating from the front) and confirming prejudices about indiscipline in English schools.

A final question remains. Is it really possible to compare teaching methodology lifted from its culture, compare it with teaching practices familiar to children from a very different culture and judge their relative merits? English teachers in Chinese schools where pupils expect to be told the correct answers may encounter opposition from those pupils if asked to investigate things for themselves.

As Tom Bennet succinctly wrote: ‘This programme is no more about discerning comparative pedagogies than it is about cake baking.’

*When I learnt Tai Chi, we started and ended each session standing in a circle including the instructor and bowing. This was to show mutual respect and demonstrate that all in the room were equal.

**The Stack Exchange community aimed at linguists claims this is a mistranslation. A more correct rough one is, "Not hearing is not as good as hearing, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as knowing, knowing is not as good as acting; true learning continues until it is put into action." (My emphasis)
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