Styles apart, but learn­ing to­gether

BBC doc­u­men­tary fu­els de­bate on ed­u­ca­tion meth­ods in the East and West, Zhang Zhoux­i­ang and Zhang Chunyan re­port.

China Daily (Canada) - - V-DAY COMMEMORATION -

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.

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