Lessons of a class­room test

China Daily (Canada) - - ANALYSIS -

Bo­hunt School, deep in ru­ral Hamp­shire, was pretty much un­known in China be­fore last Au­gust. It shot to fame thanks to the BBC series Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chi­nese School, which gen­er­ated a de­bate in Bri­tain and China about con­trasts in the coun­tries’ teach­ing meth­ods.

Now its head teacher, Neil Strowger, is in­vited to con­fer­ences in China, while its stu­dents have had to get used to Chi­nese vis­i­tors peek­ing through their class­room win­dows. Some even greet the vis­i­tors with ni­hao (hello in Chi­nese) and a friendly smile.

De­spite its large ap­peal, Strowger said the BBC series was a sit­com more than a se­ri­ous doc­u­men­tary, ar­gu­ing that it “was pro­duced as en­ter­tain­ment rather than ed­u­ca­tional re­search”.

“The edit­ing painted a very sim­plis­tic sto­ry­line: hard­work­ing Chi­nese teach­ers bat­tle poor be­hav­ior to en­sure suc­cess in tests ver­sus English teach­ers who are very stu­dent-cen­tered but are ‘too nice’ and so lose,” he said.

In the three-part pro­gram, five Chi­nese teach­ers taught 50 stu­dents at Bo­hunt School for four weeks. The fi­nale ended with tests in which the stu­dents study­ing the Chi­nese method achieved marks about 10 per­cent higher in math and science com­pared with the rest of their year group, who were taught by their reg­u­lar teach­ers in the English man­ner.

Strowger said gen­uine ed­u­ca­tional ex­changes did oc­cur be­tween the Chi­nese and English teach­ers dur­ing film­ing but were deleted in the edit­ing. Teach­ers of­ten ob­served each other’s lessons, he said.

Philip Avery, di­rec­tor of learn­ing and strat­egy for Bo­hunt Trust, which op­er­ates the school, said: “They (the Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tors) would reg­u­larly come and talk to our teach­ers about, ‘I am re­ally strug­gling with these stu­dents, what can you sug­gest?’ So there was an aw­ful lot of col­lab­o­ra­tion.”

As a re­sult of the ex­changes, teach­ers at Bo­hunt have adopted a wider range of meth­ods, in­clud­ing those used widely in China, for ex­am­ple read­just­ing the struc­ture of its science depart­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to Avery, what the school had be­fore the pro­gram is that it had heads of science for dif­fer­ent age groups. Bi­ol­ogy, chem­istry and physics were grouped un­der Science. Now they have heads for each of these sub­jects, be­cause af­ter the pro­gram, the fac­ulty re­al­ize that each sub­ject has its unique fea­tures and calls for dif­fer­ent teach­ing meth­ods, rather than the in­quiry method that was used widely in all these sub­jects.

Apart from the fi­nal ex­am­i­na­tions in the pro­gram, which the BBC pre­sented as a com­pe­ti­tion, the school has con­tin­ued to track the progress of those stu­dents who took part.

The find­ings sug­gest bet­ter progress was made in bi­ol­ogy un­der the Chi­nese method of teach­ing, while chem­istry and physics were bet­ter in the tra­di­tional Bo­hunt style. Math was fairly even, with stu­dents on both sides feel­ing hap­pier with the dif­fer­ent meth­ods.

Like most schools in Bri­tain, Bo­hunt uses the in­quiry method, where the onus is on the stu­dent to ac­quire in­for­ma­tion by ask­ing ques­tions.

“That works re­ally well in chem­istry and physics where they can do cal­cu­la­tions and can run ex­per­i­ments,” Avery said. “Bi­ol­ogy, less so, as the stu­dents weren’t go­ing to un­der­stand any­thing from dis­sect­ing that they would have from a di­a­gram.”

The Chi­nese ap­proach on the show was for teach­ers to take con­trol of lessons and ex­plain more in a fo­cused way, which gets the in­for­ma­tion across quicker, he said. This gave the stu­dents more time to prac­tice and go over things again when needed.

The col­lab­o­ra­tion went both ways, too. The Chi­nese teach­ers went away with wider strate­gies, while Bo­hunt took on board things such as the im­por­tance of “teacher talk” in lessons.

“We would pre­vi­ously have been rather ner­vous about see­ing too much teacher talk in class­rooms, and I think that’s changed,” Strowger said. “Our new learn­ing and teach­ing pol­icy said that in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, rote learn­ing and teacher talk, a more di­dac­tic ap­proach, is ab­so­lutely fine.”

Juan Cole, the school’s head of Chi­nese, added: “It was a re­ally in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment for us to see what works and what does not. Cer­tain meth­ods worked for cer­tain stu­dents, and one of our teach­ers has started ad­just­ing parts of the cur­ricu­lum.”

The stu­dents were di­vided on which meth­ods they pre­ferred.

Philippa Mur­ray, 15, was one of the young peo­ple who ap­peared in the BBC pro­gram. She said she found the Chi­nese teach­ing style en­joy­able, es­pe­cially when the class work be­came more chal­leng­ing.

Of the Chi­nese math lessons, she said: “The way the teacher ex­plained it was very de­tailed. For some peo­ple, they might have lost in­ter­est, but I was fine with it and very happy to keep lis­ten­ing to what the teacher was say­ing.”

The year 10 stu­dent said the ex­per­i­ment af­fected how she sees ed­u­ca­tion. “When I think back to the Chi­nese school, I ap­pre­ci­ate how that taught me to treat my­self bet­ter be­cause I am quite hard on my­self when it comes to learn­ing and when I do not get some­thing right. I have learned how to deal with it now af­ter be­ing in that en­vi­ron­ment.”

Scarlett Stevens, also 15, was less fond of the Chi­nese meth­ods, es­pe­cially the class­room com­pet­i­tive­ness. “The Chi­nese style was much more like a typ­i­cal English col­lege or univer­sity, like lec­tures and note­tak­ing, which is much more com­mon for a sub­ject that you have cho­sen your­self, a sin­gle sub­ject, whereas it was quite dif­fi­cult do­ing that for five dif­fer­ent sub­jects, just the same thing over and over again.”

She said she prefers the English way of dis­cov­ery learn­ing and find­ing out things for your­self rather than be­ing told what the right an­swer is or what the right for­mula is.

The Bo­hunt ex­per­i­ment came af­ter Shang­hai stu­dents had con­sis­tently ranked top for math in the Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment, which is is­sued by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment. By com­par­i­son, Bri­tish stu­dents at the time ranked 26th.

The PISA rank­ing trig­gered global in­ter­est in Chi­nese meth­ods and sup­ple­men­tary ma­te­ri­als. Bri­tain in­creased ex­changes with Chi­nese teach­ers and schools to find out what can im­prove the qual­ity of its schools.

Over the past 18 months, 127 math teach­ers from Shang­hai have shared their ex­pe­ri­ences and skills in English pri­mary schools. Bri­tish ed­u­ca­tors say their tech­niques, such as spend­ing more time on sub­jects and teacher-led ex­pla­na­tion, have al­ready had a pos­i­tive ef­fect.

“Most peo­ple are sur­prised at the way Shang­hai … per­formed on PISA be­cause they thought, with rote teach­ing, it seemed likely that the stu­dents were to fare worse than oth­ers on tasks that re­quire an ap­pli­ca­tion of knowl­edge and a prob­lem-solv­ing abil­ity,” said David John­son, reader in com­par­a­tive and in­ter­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

That is a mis­un­der­stand­ing, he said. “It is not pos­si­ble to solve prob­lems and do in­quiry learn­ing with­out the nec­es­sary sub­ject bases. Of­ten things like in­quiry-based learn­ing are not al­ways, across dif­fer­ent coun­tries, in the do­main of the school, so many sys­tems don’t feel the need to make that a strong part of the cur­ricu­lum.”

China, which con­cen­trates on es­tab­lish­ing the ba­sics, un­der­stands much bet­ter that young peo­ple are ex­posed to a num­ber of op­por­tu­ni­ties both in­side and out­side school to think math­e­mat­i­cally or to solve real-life prob­lems in other ways, he added.

“So how one bal­ances out the twin de­mands of a good, strong knowl­edge base and suf­fi­cient op­por­tu­ni­ties to ap­ply these to real-life prob­lems is the im­por­tant mix­ture.”

Tim Ayres, head of bi­ol­ogy at Bo­hunt School, is think­ing hard about a good mix of dif­fer­ent teach­ing meth­ods.

“No­body is go­ing to change the world by be­ing told stuff. They are go­ing to change the world by de­vel­op­ing ideas. That said, if you look at the ear­lier years there’s a huge em­pha­sis on in­quiry and prac­ti­cal (stud­ies), teach­ing them (stu­dents) the skills and get­ting them en­gaged in science.

“As you move to­ward the fi­nal re­sult, it does step up that lec­ture style and it also pre­pares them for A-lev­els, which will be a bit more lec­ture-style.”

Li Wen­sha Wang Mingjie

It seems the BBC pro­gram has not only brought fame to Bo­hunt, but also busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The school’s trust has signed a deal with Wen­zhou Xinzhi Ed­u­ca­tion Co to set up Wen­zhou Bo­hunt In­ter­na­tional School, which is due to open in 2018 and teach a Bo­hunt-style cur­ricu­lum as well as of­fer GCSE and A-level ex­am­i­na­tions.

It will be the first time a state school in Bri­tain has opened a pri­vate school in China. More than 40 Bri­tish pri­vate schools have es­tab­lished cam­puses in Asia and the Mid­dle East, as de­mand for a Bri­tish-style ed­u­ca­tion con­tin­ues to rise. The ex­changes be­tween Bo­hunt and China also ben­e­fit its 1,500 stu­dents, a quar­ter of whom are now learn­ing Man­darin.

“The stu­dents are in­cred­i­bly ex­cited about Chi­nese cul­ture, the his­tory and tra­di­tions, but also in the youth cul­ture,” Avery said. “It is very dif­fi­cult to bring across in ru­ral Hamp­shire, which is not at all racially di­verse. The ex­change is fan­tas­tic.”

Con­tact the writ­ers through li­wen­sha@chi­nadaily.com.cn


Top: Stu­dents in the grounds of Bo­hunt School. Above: Science, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and Math lessons in the school al­low stu­dents to ap­ply their sci­en­tific and math knowl­edge in the real world, of­ten with lo­cal in­dus­try part­ners. Right: A stu­dent in the school prac­tices Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy. Man­darin is taught to more than 400 learn­ers, with many taught us­ing an im­mer­sion method.

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