Can Chinese teaching methods work in UK schools?

With China leading the way in academic achievement, it makes sense for us in the UK to observe the Chinese schools’ methods of teaching and see what, if anything, can be learnt from the Chinese education system.

The first episode of BBC2’s new programme ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School’ aimed to do just that by experimenting with Chinese teaching methods at a British comprehensive. Chinese teachers arrived at the school in Hampshire with the aim of proving that Chinese teaching methods could be successful in the UK. The teachers’ passion for education was clear to see. One of their main aims was to instil a Chinese-style work ethic in British teenagers to help them fulfil their educational potential. This was to be achieved by utilising methods which have seen China climb to the top of global educational attainment tables. The results of this experiment remain to be seen and viewers will find out, over the course of the next two episodes, whether the Chinese teaching methods have had a positive influence on the British pupils.

The differing teaching methods and approaches to education, which can be observed across the world, are steeped in historical and cultural influences unique to each particular country or region. Therein lies the potential difficulty in exporting teaching methods from one nation to another. However, when one country is outperforming another it makes sense to examine whether there are indeed elements of one education system that can be applied to another.

In China, children are taught the foundational building blocks of each subject at an early age. This knowledge and understanding is then built upon in Chinese secondary schools at a faster pace than is typically seen in most British schools today. The Chinese approach is somewhat similar to the teaching methods seen in many UK schools prior to the introduction of more progressive methods by the governments of the 1960s. The more progressive, child-centred approach has formed the basis of most primary school teaching in the UK ever since. The approach focuses less on the rigorous teaching of methodology and more on enabling children to discover and solve problems for themselves. Methodology is only introduced as and when it is required to solve a problem. A focus on this form of teaching has often left children in the UK without a proper understanding of the structural and logical system of maths and a piecemeal understanding of grammar, spelling and syntax. If proper methodologies and systems of understanding are imparted by the teacher first, then children will be able to tackle any type of problem. I am not advocating the complete abandonment of progressive approaches, but it is important that children in the primary system are given a firm foundation in numeracy and literacy before they enter secondary schools.

The main problem the Chinese teachers are facing in ‘Chinese School’ is not the cultural and work ethic differences (although these are marked), but the fact that the British children are significantly further behind educationally than their Chinese counterparts. Chinese children can thrive in a traditional teaching environment in the secondary system because they do not have the major numeracy and literacy problems that British children have. The truth is that if the British children were more educationally advanced they would be able to withstand this onslaught of teaching from the front more successfully. Many British children just cannot cope academically and bad behaviour is a way of masking this. The problem for the Chinese teachers is also exacerbated by the fact that year 9 students are generally the most rebellious children in any secondary school. At this point the children are going through puberty, experiencing many emotional highs and lows and trying to find their own identity. No doubt the programme makers were aware of this and knew that plenty of classroom conflict would make entertaining viewing, even if nothing educationally worthwhile occurred. Problems like this would be minimised for Chinese teachers, as their society is more authoritarian: respect for teachers is always given and children are more likely to suppress the personal angst they might be feeling in the classroom setting. Nevertheless, I maintain that the British children would still have coped better if their educational foundations were more solid. It is easier to be distracted, lack motivation and give up when you are faced with expectations you cannot meet. This is what I saw happening in the ‘Chinese School.’

However, to solve this I would not advocate an abandonment of all we have learnt about teaching in favour of simply teaching from the front in an authoritarian manner. There is a middle way and we can use a variety of teaching strategies, including progressive methods, to deliver subject material. The poor performance of British children in the secondary system is down to a lack of good foundations being imparted in the primary system. In order to create freethinking children who are able to prosper academically, each child needs a sound knowledge and understanding of maths and English before they reach secondary school. This will mean implementing a traditionally structured and demanding curriculum in primary schools. Children must have the basics in place before they enter secondary education, as it is far more difficult to help children who are behind educationally when they have to travel from classroom to classroom. Every other subject in the curriculum depends on a sound grasp of numeracy and literacy, and this must be instilled in children in primary schools.

Whether or not we agree with all the approaches in the Chinese system, it is clear that they have incredibly high expectations of their children. Educators in the UK must match this expectation. We must not settle for an average performance from UK children when excellence can be achieved.

As our children will now be competing for jobs in a global marketplace and the UK economy depends on their success, if we ignore these issues it will be to our peril.

The opening episode of ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School’ can be viewed on BBC iPlayer using the link below:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b065661d/are-our-kids-tough-enough-chinese-school-episode-1

You may also want to hear the interview I had with BBC Radio Solent about the first episode of ‘Chinese School’. Click here to listen to the interview.

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