I lived in China for two years in the early ‘90s working in a teacher training university in Wuhan. I loved my time there, but life was challenging in many ways. I would be surrounded by fascinated crowds everywhere I went and was often followed by jeering shouts.
So it was amazing to land in Shanghai last month and find a city transformed. What impressed me was not just the overhead freeways or the world’s fastest train: it was the fact that people no longer spat in the street or smoked indoors or shouted at me as I went past. These changes signalled a deeper transformation than any number of breathtaking skyscrapers.
So what about education: how had that changed?
When I taught in China 20 years ago, I used to try and persuade my students not to get up at 6 am to read the dictionary. At the time I felt it epitomised their propensity to work hard at the wrong things. Their conception of learning was undoubtedly a traditional one: it took me about six months to get them to accept that I wasn’t going to give up on group work activities in class, so they might as well get on and talk to each other instead of waiting for me to start teaching again.
Some things hadn’t changed much when I visited Shanghai. On my second day I led two three hour workshops for head teachers in different districts. I couldn’t imagine talking for 3 hours solid and was sure that experienced heads would have plenty to say, so had planned in various group discussion activities. The silence after I outlined the first paired discussion was deafening – I was taken straight back to my first class 20 years ago! My solution was to tell them about the no-hands-up approach to formative assessment and then stuff the microphone into someone’s hand: to my relief they were perfectly happy to talk at length in front of the group.
When I talked about leadership and leadership development, it seemed at first as if the concepts just didn’t translate. Head teachers there are appointed and moved between schools by the district. Every Senior Leadership Team includes a Party Secretary, who is separate to the head teacher and who appears to call the shots on matters of policy. As a result, the idea that they might spot and develop talent, form strategic partnerships or take courageous decisions to address underperformance all seemed alien at first.
Yet, as the first session developed, something interesting began to happen. In an opening sequence I asked what the heads thought were the characteristics of an effective leader. One man stood up and gave what was described to me later as a ‘politically correct’ answer. It turned out he was not a head but an ex-army man now working for the district, I suspect as a party official. To paraphrase his answer, it was along the lines of: an effective leader does what the Party instructs and works for the greater good of China.
At the time though I was confused: as he finished each sentence the other heads in the room burst out laughing. I was relying on consecutive translation, so had to wait to find out what was so funny, yet as the sentences were translated they seemed boringly innocuous. What was going on? Surely he was losing face being laughed at in this way, and surely the laughter signalled an irreverent acknowledgement that real leadership was considerably more complex than the official view?
From that point on the real conversation began, and continued over lunch, then dinner and subsequent days. One head talked about how she tackled weak teachers; another how she spots and develops talent; another how he developed personalised curriculum pathways and built links with German universities; and another how she has implemented co-operative learning strategies in her school. I sat with a Director of Education discussing school to school support and knowledge management approaches for sharing effective practice between schools.
They discussed their concerns and challenges as well. How to expand education for all and secure equity at vast scale? How to manage the massive internal migration of rural workers to the cities? How to develop creativity and avoid the stringent gaocou (university entrance exam) dominating the entire system with an overly fact-based version of learning?
Of course, these were mostly Shanghai-based practitioners I was talking to and everyone kept reminding me that Shanghai isn’t representative. Nevertheless, just as I was impressed by the deeper changes in the wider city, I was equally impressed by the subtle changes in the schools and classrooms I saw from the China I knew 20 years ago.
Did the ex-army man lose face in that opening dialogue? I don’t really know. My sense is that the Chinese are more likely to laugh because they are embarrassed than because they want to mock someone. So perhaps they were more embarrassed than irreverent; but surely, underneath that embarrassment, must have been a deeper acknowledgement that such an answer misrepresents the complexities of the real world of leadership?