Schools reconvened a while back, but the momentum has just started to pick up. The fresh crop of local and international students embarking on a new school year in a fresh education setting is exciting and challenging at the same time. To help new parents and students transition, especially those who are taking their children to a western education environment, we talk to the Academic Registrar at Harrow International School Beijing, Peter Rizzardini. Rizzardini, Australian, was the Head of Prep at Harrow Beijing. He has been an educator for many years and his wife, Jennifer, is a Reception Class Teacher at the same school.
How long have you lived in Beijing? What brought you here?
This will be our fifth year in Beijing. We had moved from Cheshire in the United Kingdom, where I was the Head of Middle School at a Prep School in a beautiful village called Alderley Edge. Having lived and worked in Canada and the UK, we were looking for a new experience a little closer to our family in Australia. When the opportunity arose to become the Head of Prep at Harrow Beijing, the decision to move to China was easy.
What is a western education?
In simple terms, western education refers to the education systems used in western cultures. Most typically, this means the systems used in North America, the UK, and Europe. However, we should not forget the excellent education systems that are found in other western countries, such as Australia and New Zealand.
What are the distinct features of a western education?
Although the system used in each country has its own unique features, broadly speaking, a western education is typified by its holistic approach to learning that encourages inquisitiveness, independent learning, and creativity. This doesn’t mean that western education isn’t academically challenging; on the contrary, the western approach requires its students to reach the highest levels academically while also challenging them to think independently.
How does western education differ from eastern education?
There is still an impression that Chinese education contains elements of spoon-feeding and rote learning with an emphasis on exam results. Such a system tends to create students who are good at memorizing facts, but not as developed in creative and independent thinking.
Some schools have made real attempts to address these issues. It is important to understand that today all of the leading western universities, whether they are in the UK or America, are looking for candidates who are not just academically able, but also have a broad range of experiences beyond the classroom. So, apart from the encouragement of independent thinking, the other main differences between western and some eastern education is its holistic approach. This means that all students need to participate in a wide range of activities that cover physical, creative, cognitive, and service (community) elements to develop a portfolio that demonstrates their interests, passions, and level of participation outside of the classroom. Harrow Beijing, for example, runs more than 90 enrichment activities each week to help students build their portfolios.
What challenges have you witnessed families from non-western backgrounds experience when they move to a western education setting?
For some students, the transition to western education can initially be problematic. For many it is the first time that they are required to manage their time independently to meet deadlines. There can also be differences between the expectations at home and at school. Based on their own school experiences, parents often want to see their children studying facts from textbooks for long hours each night, where as the homework requirements from a ‘western’ school will be very different.
Can you share five strategies that can help families from different backgrounds transition to a western education setting?
One of the mistakes many new students and parents make is to focus solely on academics.
Too much of anything can also be a bad thing, so finding a balance between academics and the social, or extra curricular, aspects of school life is vital. Homework is important, but not if it is just encourages rote learning and deprives students of much needed sleep. Activities, such as community service, sports, music, speech and drama, can all play an import role in building a student’s portfolio of participation.
Take advantage of opportunities and try something new
As a new student in a new system, it is important to take advantage of the opportunities available. Schools are a great place to take on new challenges, as they can provide a safe and non-competitive place to try your hand at something you haven’t tried before. So, another good tip for students and parents is to try something new. Think about learning a musical instrument, joining a sports team, or participating in the choir. Taking part in extracurricular activities is also a great way of building new friendships with people who share the same interests as you.
Close personal tutoring is the cornerstone of the teacher – student – parent relationship at Harrow Beijing. Your child’s teacher or personal tutor is the main point of contact you should have with the school, so getting to know your child’s tutor or teacher is essential for finding out what is happening with your child’s education.
Don’t be afraid to email or phone the school using your first language. Large international schools, such as Harrow Beijing, will always have translators available for those who speak Chinese or Korean as their first language. Ask for help! It’s okay to ask for help, and this applies equally to both parents and students.
Culturally, in China, there is sometimes a reluctance to show that you don’t understand or need help. However, schools are in the business of helping students achieve their best, so it is important that students overcome this fear and seek help when it is needed. This could be as easy as putting up your hand if the teacher is speaking too quickly or seeking advice from your school counsellor.
Set Achievable Goals
One obstacle students new to western education need to deal with is the amount of freedom they have compared to some other education systems. Teachers will set deadlines that students will need to meet, so it is important for students to set themselves goals and targets to make sure work is done on time. Discuss your targets and goals with your teacher or tutor to ensure they are realistic and achievable. Once a target has been met or a goal achieved, it is okay to reward your child. However, don’t forget success isn’t just measured by academic attainment and report grades.
Read a book
My last tip is perhaps the easiest: read a book. There are many studies that agree the simple act of reading a book each night improves your chances of academic success. It is also a great way of improving your English at the same time.