Styles apart, but learning together
BBC documentary fuels debate on education methods in the East and West, Zhang Zhouxiang and Zhang Chunyan report.
When it comes to China’s education system there are generally two schools of thought: Some say it’s world class, producing respectful, hardworking students; others argue it’s an over-strict “conveyor belt” rolling out individuals who score well in exams but cannot think creatively.
For years debate has raged over whether the system needs to inject more Western elements, or whether schools in the West could learn a thing or two themselves.
The BBC added fuel to the fire in August with Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, a three-part documentary that put five Chinese teachers in charge of a class of 50 British students at Bohunt School in the south of England. For four weeks, these teenagers were given a typical Chinese education, from tracksuit uniforms to group exercises and starting lessons at 7 am.
“The series was made to examine the significant differences between the Chinese and the British approaches to education,” said the BBC in a statement. “For several years some East Asian countries have beaten the UK on core subjects in international league tables, and we wanted to explore if their approach could be transferred to the UK classroom.”
At first, the students and teachers found it hard to adapt — the former struggling with long lectures, the latter with the “chaotic” behavior of their charges. Yet, in the end, the class scored about 10 percent higher in math and science than others in the same grade.
Roughly 1.8 million viewers tuned in for the first episode, 8.6 percent of the total UK audience, and the show was soon trending online.
“British education has gone soft,” proclaimed one response on Twitter. “Teachers are abused and students have no discipline. ... The public see it but the politicians don’t.” The comment received 5,693 “likes”.
Others highlighted the fact the “Chinese school” had doubled the time spent in class for only a 10 percent increase in results, while some argued the methods employed in the show merely harked back to what British schools were like decades ago.
Instead of comparing education systems, however, many who chimed into the debate focused on the documentary filmmakers and whether their methods were scientific.
According to Chinese media reports, the BBC took six months to select teachers for the show. Yet only two were recruited from the Chinese mainland, with the others having taught in the UK for several years.
So did the methods employed in the documentary accurately reflect modern China?
In answering, Wang Xuming, a former spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Education and now president of Language and Culture Press, said viewers should remember they are watching an entertainment program. Some of the methods, “such as penalties for disobedience and scolding students, are used by some Chinese teachers, but definitely not all”.
Li Jun, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Hong Kong, added that the documentary “may be partly true” but was ultimately “biased, incomplete and … misleading”.
Many Chinese netizens also went online to say that, although criticized for failing to emphasize creative thinking, China’s education system had improved in recent years.
Viewers also rejected the premise that British school students are undisciplined, suggesting that the behavior displayed by some teenagers in the show was not typical. Suspicion was also aroused when it was also pointed out that the most unruly students had been fitted with small microphones, while others had not.
“Education is not entertainment, and the editors (of the show) were very manipulative,” said Jo Morgan, an experienced math teacher in the UK.
According to Sam Bagnall, the program’s executive producer, the filmmakers “designed” various scenarios and then recorded the scenes as they happened. The BBC statement added that the cameras were there to “give a true representation of how the students reacted to the Chinese teaching style”.
Despite the varying opinions on the subject matter and show’s format, education experts in both countries agree that the documentary should be seen as a bridge between teaching methods and standards in East and West.
“We took part in the program, and … it provided fresh input on how we might improve the education we provide,” said Neil Strowger, principal of Bohunt School, where the documentary was filmed. “The results of the program show that, when applied here in the UK, the Chinese approach to teaching can help the most academic students do well in tests.”
Although positive, this comment does point to the Chinese system’s focus on exam scores, which is its biggest weakness, according to some experts.
“Academic achievement has been used too often, too long and almost everywhere (in China) as the only indicator for the evaluation of students, teachers and schools,” said Li at the University of Hong Kong. “The real mission of education is much broader. Chinese education should rediscover and re-embrace its heritage and encourage innovative and alternative ways of learning.”
Strowger agreed. “An education is about so much more than only doing well in the exam hall,” he added. “It is to create well-rounded individuals who can succeed in the classroom, in the world of work, and throughout life.”
Contact the writers at zhangzhouxiang@chinadaily. com.cn and zhangchunyan@ chinadaily.com.cn
Students at Bohunt School in the south of England during a class led by one of the Chinese teachers.