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).