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UPDATED: September 1, 2015 NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 3, 2015
An Education Lesson
A recent BBC documentary sparks reflection on Chinese and British education systems
By Wang Hairong

Graduating students at a senior high school in Shexian County, Anhui Province, have class on May 21, 17 days prior to the national college entrance exam. China's secondary education is primarily oriented toward training students to pass the exam (XINHUA)

"In a sleepy Hampshire village, battle lines are being drawn. Five Chinese teachers have come to shake up the British education system."

With the above lines, BBC kicked off its documentary Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School. The program featured five outstanding Chinese teachers invited to teach a class of 50 Grade-9 students in Bohunt School in Liphook, Hampshire, for four weeks. They were part of an educational experiment to see whether the Chinese way of teaching will deliver better education result. The 3-episode series was aired by BBC in August.

At the end of the teaching experiment, students in the experimental class were examined on three subjects: math, science and Mandarin, and their scores were compared with those of students in a regular Grade-9 class in Bohunt School.

The examination results revealed that students in the experimental class outperformed their peers in all the three subjects. The average score of the students in the class was eight points higher than that of the control group, while their average math score was 13 points higher.

Bohunt experiment

Students participating in the experiment followed the typical daily routine of a Chinese school. They started their 12-hour day from 7 a.m. with the vigorous rhythm of morning exercise. Classes usually began with a stand-up salutation and bow to the teacher. Students, all dressed in track suits, sat at desks neatly arrayed in rows. Teachers lectured at the front of the classroom, with students taking notes.

Their study day was punctuated by two meal breaks and a facial massage to protect their eyesight. At the end of the day, they were asked to clean up the classroom, just as their peers do in China.

In addition to math, science and Mandarin classes, students also took a social education class in which ethical values were taught and a physical education class as well. Once a week, they attended a flag-raising ceremony, which is expected to cultivate love and responsibility for their country.

The teachers also gave the students a taste of Chinese culture by teaching them how to make dumplings and fan dancing.

"We need to identify the good things in Chinese education and explore whether that can be transferred back to British schools," said Neil Strowger, Bohunt School's headteacher.

China came at the top in two recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, a triennial international survey to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. The tests are administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Students representing more than 70 economies have participated in the assessment, while the United Kingdom came just above average.

"In Shanghai last year, I had seen the incredible commitment of the students, enormous class sizes and immaculate behavior," Strowger said.

But students in the experimental class are not the same as their peers in Shanghai.

Not long after the program started, students began to act unruly in the classroom. They chatted, made faces and put on makeup. One teenager drove the Chinese teachers mad by bringing a kettle and boiling tea in the middle of a class.

A teenager girl shocked her teacher by rushing out of the classroom in tears simply after hearing that singer Zayn Malik had quit the boy band One Direction.

"About half of them tried their best to follow me. And the other half? Who knows what they were doing?" lamented Li Aiyun, a teacher from Nanjing Foreign Language School, an elite school in east China's Jiangsu Province. She was invited to teach English grammar in Bohunt.

"I had to control myself, or I would be crazy," Li confessed.

These teachers disciplined these students in traditional Chinese way, for instance, by singling a student out to stand in front of the class.

"Discipline is very important; without discipline, you do not learn well," said science teacher Yang Jun from north China's Shanxi Province.

"In China we don't need classroom management skills because everyone is disciplined by families and society. Whereas here that is the most challenging part of teaching," Yang added.

But students got rebellious and the class once plunged into chaos. Bohunt's disciplinary administrator had to intervene to bring the class back to order.

Different approaches

In the TV series, while Chinese teachers emphasized discipline and the authority of teachers and parents, British students mentioned human rights on several occasions.

This reflects a cultural gap, said Wang Bing, a columnist holding a doctoral degree in mental health from Peking University.

"In a culture that emphasizes collectivism, it is important to stay the same as others; while in a culture valuing individualism, it is important to be oneself," he told China Youth Daily.

Yang Dongping, Director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, said that teaching methods are based on culture, so a successful method in one place may not work that well when simply transplanted into another place.

Speaking about discipline, Wang said that discipline can be used either to help children learn better or to save teachers trouble at the cost of going against students' nature.

"In most Chinese schools, the classes are big in size, so discipline can keep students quiet and safe in class, and enable them to learn efficiently," he noted. "Nonetheless, overemphasizing discipline can restrict children's free development, and over time, turn students into passive listeners."

The program also revealed that the British way is more tailored to individual needs while the Chinese way is strict in enforcing a uniform standard.

Science teacher Yang said, "You have different syllabuses to suit different students' abilities. We don't. We have one syllabus, one standard; you survive or you die. It's up to you."

In a math class, Chinese teacher Zou Hailian found that the students are not really interested in learning trigonometry and not good at remembering formulas.

Some students did not want to learn trigonometry because they thought it not useful in real life. A few students also complained that the math teacher was going too fast.

"There is such a wide range of abilities. Some people get it so quickly, while some people take more time. He is doing everything so quickly and not explaining it properly," said one student.

Jay Bremner, Bohunt's math teacher, said, "It appears that information was largely just given to them very quickly, all in one go, with just the expectation that it's there, copy it and do it."

According to him, teaching and learning and classrooms have changed a lot. "It is not the teacher's lesson anymore, but the students' lesson," he argued. "If we as teachers do not develop lessons tailored to the needs of our particular groups, it will fall on deaf ears—either the students will misbehave, the children won't access it, or the children won't understand it."

Participatory teaching gives students more lasting memory, Wang said. He believes that two-way education has at least three advantages: First, it is less exhausting to students, for they can stop and discuss a problem at any time; second, it makes students and teachers more equal, and hence they are more willing to discuss a problem, and third, asking questions is a learning process for students.

But a lot of viewers of the documentary contended that academic rigor is also important.

A Hong Kong netizen known as Tamako wrote, "One has to go through hardship, confusion, even frustration in order to truly comprehend a subject. Otherwise, nothing can be achieved. I never give up simply because something is not fun. And this is the most valuable thing I learned from the highly strict, demanding and competitive Chinese education system."

There has also been feedback pointing out that the experiment is a very simplistic way to compare two education systems.

"The Chinese method of teaching is a product of both the structure of their education system, and, more importantly, the culture of their society...The system is geared to teach students to pass tests, not to question or to challenge. The Chinese system is excellent at what it does: rote learning," wrote a netizen known as GuyMontag2011, who claimed to have experience teaching students in China, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The class taught by Chinese teachers achieved higher grades because their strict class management and systematic test-oriented teaching, said Xiong Yongchang, Deputy Principal of Beijing 101 Middle School.

He told China Education Daily that the BBC documentary dramatizes clashes between Chinese teachers and British students, while not reflecting the differences in the two countries' education systems sufficiently.

Regardless, he said that the experiment should be viewed in positive light for it is an educational exchange program between China and the United Kingdom. According to him, China has been reforming its curriculum and gradually reducing class size and adjusting teaching strategy in the past decade.

Paul Ryan, a netizen, commented after viewing the TV series, "It's not one system is better than the other, but about taking the best bits of each."

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

Comments to wanghairong@bjreview.com

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