Last night my twitter feed was awash with tweets about #ChineseSchool. Largely these were dismissive of the attempt to use Chinese teaching methods in a British context but some were tweets expressing embarrassment at how some of the teenagers behaved. I think the behaviour of the 50 year 9 guinea pigs is a distraction from the other key reasons why this teaching approach should never be introduced here. Whilst I don’t think many are seriously suggesting a roll out of Chinese School methods, I think we should be very wary of looking to the East for answers to our international education ranking.
The programme began by explaining that in China students’ experience of school is one of ‘high pressure learning’ and ‘ruthless competition’. If the programme’s year 9 students were in China, they’d be competing for a place in a high school. Only about 70% would achieve the desired mark on a single test and the rest would end their formal education. My guess is that students like Sophie and Luca would be in amongst that unlucky 15… There are, of course, many cultural factors but you can see why the high stakes system engenders a culture that encourages students to spend every waking moment studying. In a ‘one child’ system, these students embody the ‘one chance’ ethos and it is easy to understand why parents would throw everything at helping their child succeed. (See this blog by Vincent Lien on the impact this system has on students).
Luckily for them, Bohunt’s year 9 live in leafy Liphook not smog-choked Shanghai. It’s little wonder that they don’t have the same work ethic as their Chinese counter parts. If they don’t do well in year 9, they’ll still progress to year 10 and so on and so forth. Teachers will be working tirelessly behind the scenes to help them do well (we saw one Maths teacher giving up his time to go over trigonometry with some confused year 9 girls) but they won’t be thrown on the scrap heap. What’s more, Bohunt’s year 9s have things that Chinese students don’t have: a life outside of school with time to nurture friendships; time to pursue their own hobbies and interests; time to try and figure out who they are as an individual.
I think the main issue with the Chinese School approach is how little value is placed on the individual. This could be seen most keenly in the class size of 50. It would be a challenge indeed to build rapport with a class that size; to know something about each of the students let alone their strengths and weaknesses in your subject. When one of the teachers shared the Confucius saying, ‘Knowledge makes humble; ignorance makes arrogant’ and expected students to reflect, one puzzled student said, ‘I don’t know what humble means’. No time was given to exploring key words or checking that everybody was able to tackle the task in hand. It was only when one of the teachers gave her class a ‘surprise’ Physics test that she began to appreciate how little students had understood in her lessons.
Another key issue was pace. The Chinese teachers were blazing a trail through the curriculum and employing teaching methods that allowed them to go fast. In essence, they were sacrificing secure and deep understanding for speed. In China this approach might well work with students staying up until they fall asleep to consolidate and memorise but Bohunt’s year 9s were left, bemused and befuddled, in the smoke trails. What happens to those left behind? In a ‘survive or die’ system the answer is clear…
One of the surprising successes in the first programme was what a hit the combined morning exercise was with the students. Who would have guessed that hormonal year 9s would enjoy swinging their arms around in unison? It was great to see students leading the exercises later in the programme being followed by their peers in an activity designed to build a collective sense. I also think we have something to learn about building the resilience of our students to stick with things they find difficult and concentrate even when lessons are uninspiring because, newsflash, when they start work they’re going to need those skills. I wouldn’t, however, advocate throwing them in at the deep end of an alien education culture and expecting them to swim.
After 4 weeks of the experiment, Bohunt’s year 9s will be tested to see which approach delivers better results. Even if the Chinese School approach does deliver better results, would we really want to introduce it? Do we want to put our students under more pressure? Do we want a culture of ruthless competition where students, in the words of one of the Chinese teachers, ‘survive or die’? Do we want our students’ lives to be dominated by the pursuit of academic success at the expense of pursuing their own interests, family time and nurturing friendships? I think we would be slaughtering our children’s happiness and individuality on the PISA league table.