Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Are our kids tough enough? Hopefully not.

I have just finished watching the first episode of "Are our kids tough enough?", the BBC program in which a team of Chinese teachers take over a British school and conduct classes using Chinese methods and curricula.

The program is certainly entertaining and well made, as you would expect from the BBC. At the same time, it can hardly be taken as a serious comparison of the two educational systems. You can't just take a bunch of students out of the system they were brought up in, and expect them to adjust. It is also not surprising that faced with unfamiliar teachers who mostly speak their language less than perfectly, teenagers begin to act up (although the disrespectful behaviour of some British teens is a real problem).

As the BBC has made clear, the inspiration for the program came from the idea that Chinese schools are positioned at the top of world rankings, and that they outperform British ones. This notion was widely peddled by the British media as a result of the 2013 edition of the influential PISA report, which compares the educational achievements of students in different OECD countries. The result was that high school students in Shanghai ranked first for mathematics, reading and science, coming just above China's Asian neighbours, and way above Britain and all Western countries. The only problem is that the report's methodology was deeply flawed.

While all the other countries included were surveyed in their entirety, in the case of China only Shanghai was included in the report. PISA did survey some other Chinese provinces (all of them relatively rich and prosperous ones), but the authorities only allowed the results for Shanghai to be released, supposedly because they were the best ones.

The problem with this is obvious: comparing a single city to entire countries make little sense. Shanghai, the richest and most developed city in China, which contends with Beijing in attracting the nation's elite, is clearly unrepresentative of China as a whole. What's more, I have serious doubts that the survey even included the children of Shanghai's poor migrant workers. These children usually lack a Shanghai hukou, which means that they are effectively excluded from Shanghai's public schooling system, especially when it comes to high school. 

This didn't stop international and British news outlets churning out articles with headlines claiming that Shanghai's educational system was ranked "the best in the world", or that Shanghai's (or even China's) students are the "brightest in the world" (For examples, see here, here and here). 

Soon afterwards, British education minister Elizabeth Truss went on a visit to some Shanghai schools, and wrote an almost impossibly fawning and naive piece of flattery about the Chinese educational system and how great it is, especially at teaching maths. Apparently it is a myth that Chinese children are in school at all hours: "actually, their teaching time is similar to ours. But they use it much more efficiently". This is the country where some high schools have classes on saturdays and sundays as well, something I have personally witnessed.

The article concludes with the minister, clearly awe-struck by Shanghai's skyscrapers the way many first-time visitors are, claiming that the respect for maths and the belief in every single child on display in Shanghai should inspire us all. This was followed by a taxpayer-funded program to bring maths teachers from some of Shanghai's best schools to come to Britain and train local teachers in the Chinese ways. Suddenly, everyone is falling over themselves to praise a system they know nothing about.

It is true that Shanghai's results in the PISA test were impressive. It even outperformed Singapore. Clearly Shanghai's schools must be doing something right. I also don't find it hard to believe that the average Chinese student is three years ahead of the average British one in maths. It is a simple fact that Chinese schools (like other Asian ones) have a more demanding maths curriculum than what is normal in Western countries.

The jury is still open, though, on whether Chinese and other Asian students' superior achievements in maths and science are due to a different approach to teaching, or simply to much longer hours spent studying, whether at school, at home or in special after-school classes. It isn't hard to get better results, when you spend three times longer on your books. It is also the simple truth that Chinese education does not encourage critical thinking to the extent that the British one does. Nor does it seem to foster a real love of learning and of reading for reading's sake. It is more about working yourself stupid to get into a good university and have your future set. 

All in all, I don't think that China's educational system is geared to produce especially creative, enlightened or well-informed citizens. And what's more, many Chinese are well aware of this themselves and want reform. As long as China's universities remain average, claims to its educational superiority are going to sound pretty hollow. There may be a thing or two the British could learn from China about how to teach maths effectively, but it probably stops there. The discipline and dedication of Chinese students is the result of values and pressures which the British couldn't hope to replicate if they wanted to.

And by the way, when one of the Chinese teachers in the program claims that British kids aren't motivated to work hard because they know that in Britain "you are given money even if you can't find a job", she is wrong-headed. If British students don't spend all day doing homework it has nothing to do with the existence of a welfare state, which is something to be proud of. 

Maths teacher Zou Hailian patrolling his students in Bohunt comprehensive, Hampshire.


Renato Corsetti said...

Very true! Renato

Anonymous said...

I think I might watch this show now. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! I somehow traced this blog through a post you made on the Guardian.

justrecently said...

Every once in a while, this topic pops up in one or another way. Sex, crime, soccer and school sells. No surprise that the BBC show can't be considered a true assessment of which country has "the" competitive edge when it comes to education (or drill).

But while Chinese education - parents and schools combined - often seems to produce egomaniacs or bags of nerves (who cares as long as they leave no quiz unanswered), parents, students and teachers in Germany frequently seem to forget an obvious truth: there's always room for improvement.

Unknown said...

I don't think it's the methods of teaching as it is the society as a whole. You could see how the Chinese teachers struggled to engage the students with their boring chalk and talk from the front. Their kids might be respectful and well behaved but unfortunately teachers are not respected in British society, teaching is not viewed as a prestigious profession but rather as something easy that people do for the long holidays. Parents tend to support their kids over the teacher whereas in China it appears to be the opposite. I feel that the British teaching system is better overall but teachers can only do so much when their students have no ambition or respect and expect to be entertained rather than educated.