I watched a BBC documentary this week, where five Chinese teachers took over part of a British school in Hampshire, England. The documentary Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School was a kind of experiment, whereby fifty children in year nine, aged 13-14, had to live under a completely different school regime – one run by Chinese teachers. For four weeks, they wore a special uniform and started the school day at 7am instead of the usual 9am. Lessons were focused on note-taking and repetition, pupils had to clean their own classrooms, and there were only two meal breaks in the 12-hour days.
The Chinese education system – with its long school days and tough discipline – tops global league tables. Chinese students are heralded as being incredibly committed and well behaved, with pupils up to three years ahead in maths. Which is why the politicians in Britain are now looking to the Chinese system, and ways to incorporate its learning styles into British schools. Which is ironic really, because the Chinese are now looking more and more to the British and US systems. There are British private schools being set up across China, and Chinese students cram into US and British universities.
The documentary highlighted the differences between the two education systems. In China, lessons are essentially lectures, where the teachers stand at the front writing theory on the board, while the students take notes and learn. This system works in Chinese schools, where education is based on authority and respect is a given. But as the documentary showed, this lecture style of teaching works less so in a British comprehensive school, where autonomy and questioning are encouraged. British pupils are used to being able to ask questions of the teacher, and they expect their views to be considered with respect, which is at odds with the Chinese way of teaching.
The pupils involved in the experiment couldn’t understand why the Chinese system has such large class sizes. They felt this made the classroom environment stressful and much too competitive, with 50 other pupils in the room they found it hard to concentrate. In British schools class sizes vary, but tend to be around 30 pupils in primary school age and 20-25 for secondary school. The focus on rote learning and testing led to many of the pupils in the documentary feeling pressured, that it was only their scores on tests that seemed to matter.
There were some positives however. Some of the British pupils liked having to copy "stuff" from the board as they thought this would help them remember it. The more able pupils also liked the lecture style of the Chinese classroom. The Headmaster felt that a longer school day would definitely benefit all of his pupils, and that politicians should consider introducing this across all schools in Britain. The Chinese teachers in the documentary were very impressed with how independent the British pupils were, taking responsibility for many aspects of their school day.
The methods and teaching styles employed by the Chinese teachers clearly work in China. But the trouble with documentaries like this, is they don’t focus on the wider influences. The exceptional academic results, achieved in many Chinese schools, are not just about the classroom. It’s about the entire cultural context and the role of Chinese parents in their children’s education. It would be interesting to try it the other way round, with British teachers going in to a local Chinese school. No lecture style lessons, splitting the class into small groups, and asking for pupil’s creative ideas, suggestions, and input into their own learning. Now that would be good to watch.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.