Posted by: mrlock | August 4, 2015

Chinese School – Are Our Children Tough Enough

This blog was written in 55 minutes following the programme. Please forgive any errors.

Prior to the first episode of Are Our Children Tough Enough broadcast on 4th August 2015, very many people (including many teachers) on twitter, and I’ve no doubt many not on twitter had decided to dismiss any possible positive outcomes. The most common response was a varient of

“It is, however, abundantly clear to me that Chinese parents, culture and values are the real reasons that Shanghai Province tops the oft-cited Pisa tables rather than superior teaching practice. No educational approach or policy is going to turn back the British cultural clock to the 1950s. Nor should it seek to.”

That quote is from Headteacher Neil Strowger, the Headteacher of the school who participated in the experiment, so it is worth noting what he has to say. I would respond to Mr Strowger that no-one I know who wants to learn from the Chinese system wants to turn the clock back to the 1950s. The Chinese (or at least Shanghai province) are clearly doing something right in the 21st century, and it’s unprofessional of us to ignore that, and our school system needs a kick. Why not learn from China?

I understand that the programme is devoid of nuance, that it is entertainment, and that we can’t draw conclusions from a whole series, let alone one episode. Indeed the programme appeared to imply the project was a variant of an RCT – neutral assessors would see which group – those taught in the Chinese style or the UK style – had learnt the most after 4 weeks. But of course this says nothing except what can be done in 4 weeks. It’s like last minute intervention, Chinese style, with a few pupils, and the conclusions must therefore have a mountain of salt with them. Actually no salt, just dismissed.

The students taught in the ‘Chinese school’ wore tracksuits. I wasn’t expecting that! There were more predictable things: desks in rows, longer days, two lunch breaks and lots of teaching from the front.

The most worrying aspect of the reactions to the programme are that we as a profession seem entrenched in our view that in the UK we are *good enough*, and there is little that can be learnt from overseas, despite what the international tables suggest. Some commentators hide behind context as an excuse for not challenging what we do. I suspect it’s because those of us working in education are something of a conservative lot.

Besides anything else, it makes me uncomfortable to suggest that the difference between the performance of nations is ‘cultural’. The implications of such conclusions are unpalatable.

Throughout my career in teaching I’ve witnessed the teaching profession react defensively to any challenge of the status quo, or any suggest we’re not all brilliant. There’s a nod to ‘improvement’, but in reality we are a profession that revels in our status as martyrs whenever there is a suggestion we could be doing better. It’s a defensive attitude we see in others, that as a profession we’re capable of identifying in others, but as a profession find it difficult to identify in ourselves.

This defensive attitude does our pupils a disservice. It also does us a disservice.

As a profession we have to accept that, despite the heavy investment in education, standards in the UK are not high enough. We may argue about the cause of this, but to deny that standards have fallen over the last thirty years would be ridiculous. Personally, I blame an over-reliance on progressivism and a lack of effective challenge to the progressive educational establishment – discovery learning, permissiveness and child-centredness have had centre stage for far too long at the expense of direct instruction, authority, and subject disciplines. This has been reinforced by government, including via the national curriculum, and policed by the inspectorate at a very high price in terms of our kids’  achievement. The programme itself identified ‘child-centredness’ and ‘progressive’ as features of UK education and features of Bohunt School (the school in the programme) specifically.

The question arising from the educational exchange with China – a relationship cultivated by my last school with an exchange that included our pupils visiting China – shouldn’t be “would Chinese style education work on British kids?” but “what can we learn to do better from the Chinese?” as well as a host of other questions.

Here are three things I noticed from the first episode and think we should consider.

1) Behaviour – I thought this might have been nailed years ago by Mossbourne, led by Sir Michael Wilshaw in Hackney and proving that the most deprived pupils can behave immaculately, but apparently not. It is fine to expect pupils to listen and behave and make this a pre-requisite of learning. Too many schools still believe that lessons need to interest pupils and this is how we get good behaviour. It’s nonsense. It’s an abdication of leadership: the ethos of a school is set by senior leaders and enforced by everybody and if this ethos is one of strict discipline the school is more likely to be successful. As one of the Chinese teachers said “without discipline you don’t learn well”.

The programme makers clearly focussed on the least well behaved pupils, but the immediate switching off, outright defiance and lack of grit really got to me. I am not even a fan of that word, but both that and ‘growth mindset’ came to mind several times during the programme.

The pupils even knew this. At one point Rosie said “in China aren’t the children like really really well behaved” and Angelina finished her sentence with “and we’re not”. Another pupil talked about it being fun to push the boundaries when teachers are strict, and another complained that it was unfair that her behaviour had been corrected with a (minor) sanction without a warning.

Some others challenged me on twitter suggesting that the behaviour was normal for kids in an unusual situation. This might be true, but they are in their school – and surely they should be behaving according to the school’s ethos.

I do understand that the programme does not represent how the school is on a day-to-day basis, nor how the pupils behave.

2) Instruction – it’s fine to tell pupils what they need to know. This sounds ridiculous to have to say, but in an era of the prominence of discovery learning, what pupils need to know is so often kept from them.

In fact, a British Science teacher said in the programme “for a Scientist it’s all about finding out the methods yourself”.

This is a common view in schools, and not just in science. The Chinese teachers expected pupils to absorb and memorise information delivered at the front of the class – something the pupils were unable to do. Memory can be a dirty word in our schools while I follow Kirschner, Sweller and Clark in defining all learning as a change in long term memory of some kind. It is fine to tell the pupils what they need to know and not wait for them to find it out for themselves. That British students don’t memorise formulae in maths was a key problem brought up midway through this episode.

The Chinese approach illustrated was very different. The teacher explained that “I don’t use the science equipment very often. I deliver the knowledge and use the board in a very traditional fashion. I can deliver it fast in a very structured manner.” Efficiency is key, and something I think we can learn from. I often hear subject leaders bemoan the lack of time they have for subjects – they’re almost always right, but time is the thing we can’t create more of and we must use as efficiently as possible. Discovery learning uses a lot of that most precious resource of time – usually, I would posit, to less effect.

As the narrator then said, the children need to behave for the Chinese style lecturing to be effective, which takes us back to point one.

Despite some of the poor behaviour, and despite the lack of background knowledge of the pupils meaning some parts of lessons were inaccessible, some pupils described the teaching in the Chinese style as positive. One pair talked about understanding equilibrium and Mr Strowger admitted some of the pupils preferred being told what they need to know. Another boy said “I actually learnt something in chemistrieeee”.

This is despite Headteacher Mr Strowger having pedagogical views that are not exactly in favour of explicit instruction – “talking at the front doesn’t sit right on any level… I don’t want it to be the best way to teach students”

3) All can achieve – but not all will – and expectations are everything. One of the Chinese teachers was comparing the approach of teaching different pupils at different ability levels different syllabuses in the UK with the approach in China – “we have the one syllabus and we teach them all that syllabus”. The implication was that setting can be a form of dumbing down for the least able. There was one scene where a teacher was imploring the class to work harder because the work is accessible to all as long as they work hard enough over time. I’m not sure a 4 week series is going to be enough.

I wonder about the role of practice in China – I’m guessing a lot of this is after school hours but it must be prevalent to ensure the transfer of some of the knowledge they learn to long term memory.

At one point a child said of a lesson taught in Chinese style “I get what you do but not why”. I’m sure this will be leapt upon by critics, but it ignores that we all often get the what before the why. Most of us who drive a car know what to do but not why it works, and I would guess everyone including mechanics learn what to do before understanding why it works. This is actually the case with a great many aspects of education and desperately trying to put the ‘why’ before the ‘what’ can be tremendously inefficient as pupils need a great deal more knowledge to understand why.

I was amazed at the central role of PE. If you don’t pass the PE tests in China you can be held back from good high schools or universities. This didn’t go down well with some of the UK students, especially Joe, who is high achieving academically. As the PE teacher said “the students are scared of failing”. He certainly needed a dose of growth mindset at that point. Everything came right for Joe though, as he could do the complex chinese puzzle that was introduced to engage the pupils towards the end of their first week of teaching, and his classmates gave him attention. Joe reported “that’s never really happened before”.Joe did say, reflecting on his experience in PE, that it was OK in Britain to be mediocre at some things, and clearly expectations are higher in China. I thought this was interesting.

Some of the other pupils in PE didn’t really embrace the ‘no excuses’ approach of the Chinese either, one girl saying “well Stephen Hawking wouldn’t be very good at it”.

I was also surprised at the role of student voice in maintaining high standards in the classrooms in China – committees elected to maintain the environment and keep order and discipline. I’d like to know more!

While it was set up to be an experiment, and gives the impression of rigor, as my partner said to me while watching it “They’re just English kids in an English school with Chinese teachers”.

Quite. I took from the programme what I read into it – reaffirming my biases. I’m sure people who disagree with me also reaffirmed theirs. Given the false and artificial construction of the situation with the programme, there’s not much to actually learn from it, is there?

Or is there?

Mr Strowger said “I believe that a longer school day would have value for our pupils and that teachers should not on occasion be afraid of delivering monologues in the classroom”

And for someone who “does not want this style to be successful because it’s wrong on every level” there’s a bit of a shift. I hope it’s shifted some others similarly. Challenging the idea that we all have to be ‘guides on the side’ rather than ‘sages on the stage’ is a positive step.

Finally, I’d like to mention that I expect to learn a lot from the most successful school systems from Lucy Crehan’s book Cleverlands. If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend pledging by clicking on the link (and please do so soon because I want to read it sooner rather than later).



  1. Spot on in so many ways. But here’s the thing that I also took away from it. Rather than being heartless and cold, you could see that these teachers did care about the children and their learning. The truth is that most of the little things the children were doing was from the outset. Fidgeting, not listening, etc rather than just when it was time to learn. If they can’t stand the pace it’s because, like you said, we waste time.

    My partner is an Astronomer and he was just incredulous at the way Science was being taught as though making mistakes is what it is about. No it is about learning from them. Also its a nonsense to make them ‘discover’ for themselves. What does this achieve? So they come to the same conclusions as someone a few hundreds years ago already did. Pointless and this does not lead to creativity it leads to gaps in knowledge.

    Mantle of the expert and guide from the side are abdications of our role in leading the class and ensuring that children know all that they can in the time they have with us. Precisely so they can be creative. The bit the Chinese have wrong is the inability to dissent due to their political system.

    There is nothing amazing about being taught back into the stone age in terms of our knowledge. As Gramsci said of progressive education during the era of the Italian Fascist ‘it will leave children ignorant and a slave to their emotions’ – quite.


    • Yes, the teachers really cared. The panic and the surprise test not to catch the kids out, but because she really wanted to know if they could remember anything she’d taught.

      There is masses the Chinese have wrong, including their political system. I don’t even want our education system to be like theirs. I do think we owe it to our kids to learn from them though.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Is the Chinese political system wrong or is it, in its context, a more efficient way of running the country than our rather more inefficient system ?


  2. I’ve pledged to Lucy Crehan’s book ‘Cleverlands’ and hope to be inspired by the most successful school systems!


  3. Seems to me that we need to instruct our children in how to learn, to equip them with the necessary tools to do the job well. A lot can be taken from the Shanghai system, but equally, we only need to look back to our own in the past.

    The Chinese teachers expected students to be quiet when they come in and when the teacher is talking. Is that at all wrong? Rote learning has its place too, working memory is improved by learning ever increasing strings of information, a great many of us over 50 still remember the times-table chants! As boring as they may have been, I can usually do a multiplication/long division sum quicker by pen & paper than the time it takes a student to bring up the calculator app on their phone.

    On the flip side, not all students learn at the same pace & the Chinese teachers can learn by some of our ways. Like any system, there will always be good and bad points. Not all students can learn the curriculum at the same pace. While that should never be an excuse for low expectations, the British way is to include all students – although it is a journey that many schools are still on.


  4. Apologies that this isn’t informed by having watched the program, but I’m in the no show area the BBC calls “not-UK,” so can’t get it on iplayer.

    In the US and England, we have a remarkable preference for believing in “The One True Way.” In education, it leads us to a lot of false dichotomies:
    – lecture vs discovery
    – teaching vs guiding
    – memorization vs understanding
    – knowledge vs skills

    These are false dichotomies in two senses: (1) there is often another choice and (2) we can use both (or all), but may have to be thoughtful about where to use each. For example, it is valuable that students learning multiplication build their understanding through a range of different models of multiplication, but it is also important to have memorized and rapid recall of basic multiplication facts.

    For knowledge vs skills, I’d note that you can’t learn to swim by only sitting in a lecture hall listening to a teacher, you have to actually experience and practice the component skills. However, mini-lectures can really help the student focus their practice and attend to the things they are trying to develop. For the converse, it is a powerful technique to associate physical activity and multi-sense components to learning a collection of facts.

    Finally, I think it is important to ask what we are trying to achieve, on several levels:
    a) What is the point of this lesson?
    b) what is the point of this course?
    c) what is the point of our school system?

    Taking the last and expanding, it is clear that the Chinese objective is to produce a collection of technically proficient and efficient workers (how tempting to write “drones?”) Compliance and obedience (social harmony) are intended side-effects to the structure of the educational system. Not entirely clear that the UK would share (or wouldn’t) those particular goals.


  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  6. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Interesting to compare the Chinese approach to teaching and the UK approach. Are our children tough enough?


  7. I’ll apologise for multiple posts now, as I can’t keep so many ideas in my head.

    I take umbrage at a few points in this blog post, the first is the denial of the fact the culture (and by extension: national IQ) of China being a huge driver of success. This is clear if you look at Chinese migrants in any country. They perform almost as well anywhere on the planet.

    The second (and always missed point) is that in China (as in all the Eastern countries) there is a huge shadow school network, with a huge proportion of students going to school after school. This means double the amount of education time for most students.

    All I’m saying is that if there are secrets in the Chinese system, they seem to be, be born smart and spend your entire day studying. Is this a healthy message to take, I’m not sure.


    • Yes, I anticipated this might be your reply. Thanks for the comment. I haven’t missed the second point. I just don’t think it’s relevant to what we might be able to learn from Shanghai.

      The first point is one that sits poorly with me. I think it’s an excuse for defeatism, but that doesn’t assess it’s veracity.

      When I write about culture, I am saying that the poor work ethic inculcated in many pupils in schools in the UK is clearly a product of low expectations and their environment. They can work hard, but don’t. And even if there *is* something genetic about the capacity for hard work (something that as I said, makes me uncomfortable), we need to seek to overcome that inclination rather than pander to it – which is what I think dismissing any results as ‘culture’ does.

      I do take your points as much as I’d prefer to ignore them.


    • Point 2: The Answers Not Outside The UK

      So I’m going to quote Mark McCourt here (@EMathsUK) and hope he relies with the raw data however it is along these lines.

      Singapore has approximately 150 secondary schools, if you take the top 150 secondary schools in the UK and compare them to 150 from Singapore we outperform them. So the answers that we seek are in the UK. We also outperform Shanghai when compared like this. (Shanghai is not a country).


      • But that’s all of one area’s schools against a selection of another area. That’s not a valid comparison either. I get there are issues. London is a lot close to Shanghai than the UK is, for example, and this exaggerates what we can learn.

        I read Mark saying he thinks the solutions are here. I am not sure I agree. Or, where they are, I think those schools have learnt some of the lessons an international comparison might encourage them to.


      • Just to clarify, because the quote gives slightly the wrong message…

        I said that the answers lie within the profession – that’s true, they do. But I also said it is obtuse to learn from ‘external others’. We should learn from any source we can.

        The central point to the speech you are quoting is that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. We have many, many amazing schools and an ancient education system with centuries of highly regarded success. That is why education is the UKs 5th largest export.

        But we are teachers, we learn from anywhere we can.

        The Singapore number is 500. Our top 500 schools do indeed far outperform. But that is just a way of saying we have extemely successful schools operating in our own culture already. Let’s look at them and see why. Unsurprisingly, discipline, tradition, high expectation, longer hours, demand and grit play a central role in these 500 schools. Who’d have thought it!


      • Oops, I missed a word… Should read ‘obtuse to NOT learn’


  8. Point 3: Behaviour and Mossbournr Academy

    Mossbourne is a false flag, a myth, the idea that the cohort was poverty stricken or that the students were ‘some of the poorest in the country’ – @DisIdealist crunched the numbers which showed it wasn’t representative of its area in its intake.

    As for the behaviour, I often wonder if any teacher in the whole world doesn’t believe it is a top priority for schools to get right. However, it is again a solved system, there is simply no excuse for schools not having a system in place.


    • Mossbourne wasn’t as ‘poor’ as its predecessor and having taken 6th form students from there, there are things about it that aren’t as they seem from the outside, but it *was* solved with ordinary kids. I agree there is no excuse for not having a system.


      • Yes, as a teacher nothing annoys me more than the reason for bad behaviour being a poor system in place. Yes, the students should have high levels of discipline, but you must always plan for bad behaviour. Be a pessimist, always have strategies for when it goes wrong. Too many schools deny they have a problem.


  9. Final point (part 2 and 3 together) – I am going anecdotally here.

    I am a very traditional teacher, you’d mistake my lessons for Chinese style, teacher led instruction practice but with added perks of spaced learning, interleaved practice and abuse of testing effect. Quite simply I am right on the edge of what I believe is possible.

    Use rag123 every lesson, make sure all students give me an hours hard work.

    My question is: why don’t my students make as much progress as their Chinese counterparts?

    There has to be another reason.


    • Also I have stolen every good idea I’ve seen in Chinese schooling – bar modelling, number sentences etc.


  10. Well there are obviously factors from home coming into play. I don’t deny these factors.


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