Looking and listening in Shanghai: what’s beneath the headlines and slogans?

Chris Husbands sends a China diary

The trick of optical illusions is that we see what we want to see. Our preconceptions and our prejudices shape the way we process what we observe. As a result, there is nothing, perhaps, more misleading than direct observation. Few preconceptions are really challenged by experience. The Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger famously put it like this: “A man with a conviction is hard to change… Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

I’m lucky: as a visiting professor at East China Normal University (ECNU), one of Shanghai’s leading universities, I spent some time in an elite upper secondary schools. A publicly funded, newly built school in northern Shanghai, it is, in effect, a selective sixth-form college. In one Science lesson, I saw a teacher in confident command of advanced technology and subject matter, using a well-constructed PowerPoint presentation to offer a technically detailed account of crystalline structures. And I saw 39 passive pupils sitting in rows, not using technology, some of them referring to a textbook, some taking notes in exercise books using pens. Looking one way, at the teacher, I saw a twenty-first century lesson; looking the other way, at the pupils, I saw a nineteenth century lesson.

Some observers, perhaps currently influential in UK policy making, would have looked at the lesson and seen the most successful urban education system in the world in full flow – didactic teaching, to biddable young people aiming for top Chinese universities. Other observers would have looked at the lesson and seen a lack of engagement, an absence of interaction, no strong evidence of learning taking place.

When the principal showed me around, I asked what his aims were for his school. He was clear: “we exist to get our pupils into top universities”. He told me about the care he takes over staff appointments – looking at subject knowledge, the ability to ‘organise learning’ but also the willingness to participate fully in the education research groups and teaching preparation groups which are such an embedded feature of Shanghai schools.

We walked past the office of the school’s director of research and development (we can make sense, and approve, of that) and then (more difficult to understand, but hugely influential in the school) the office of the deputy secretary of the Party Committee, to the school’s ‘classroom of the future’: brightly coloured hexagonal tables, set up for discussion with power points for tablets and computer screens on every wall. “In 10 years’ time’, he said to me, “we will have failed if all our classrooms are not like this”. Asked what the rest of the world should learn from Shanghai’s PISA performance, he replied: “PISA is not an authority”.

What Shanghai needed to do next for its education system was to reduce competition between schools. Until this year, schools have been ranked based on their performance in getting pupils into top universities, but this has been abandoned: a good move, he thought.

Yuan Zhenguo, architect of the 2011-2020 education plan, now dean of education at ECNU, told me, as so many others have done, that the Chinese education system is failing to develop independence and creativity. He said the students who succeed in a regimented school system and access top universities then fail to thrive as post-graduates: “we have the data which tells us this”. I asked him to imagine a 2018 in which he and his colleagues are pleased with the progress on independence and creativity, but in which Shanghai has come twentieth in PISA: “that would be very challenging”, he said.

The PISA analyst for Shanghai told me about the massive, rapid growth of the ‘shadow education system’ as newly rich parents seek to advantage their children through private tutors, music lessons and so on. “Our system is becoming more unequal”, she said, “but I do it for my son: I cannot afford not to”.

Su Ming is a thoughtful, serious-minded man who has what might be the most difficult education job in the world. In 2012 he took over as Director of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission: never, as any football manager will attest, take over an already successful team. It’s Su Ming’s job to deliver stability – maintaining high performance, as well as change – better education for migrants without residence permits who are outside Shanghai’s public schools, improving the way the system develops creativity and independence, and doing it all, now in the full glare of global publicity. “The challenges facing Shanghai are the challenges facing education all over the world”, he said. “We are no better equipped than anyone else to meet them”.

Across the western world, there is a burning desire – in Marc Tucker’s phrase – to ‘surpass Shanghai’: to develop education systems which consistently deliver exceptional results. In China, there is an equally burning desire to learn from western education systems and their concern with personalization and differentiation. Too often (and I’m no exception) we each see what our preconceptions lead us to see. Instead of seeing, we need to listen harder to what those on the frontline can tell us beneath the headlines and the slogans, and think collectively about the challenges we all face in preparing our young people for the complex, challenging world they will inherit. And there are no easy answers as schools struggle with the demands of more unequal societies, the pressure for cohesion and for differentiation, for individual success and strong overall achievement.

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Posted in curriculum & assessment, Education policy, International comparisons
2 comments on “Looking and listening in Shanghai: what’s beneath the headlines and slogans?
  1. It seems to me that both Yuan Zhenguo and Su Ming understand the complex balancing act required if they are to reform their education system. They articulate what needs changing and seem to appreciate the risks involved. They recognise that many countries are trying to distill the essence of their success but seem willing to question that success.

    What would entice anyone to change a system that is the ‘envy’ of the world?!!!!

    Maybe the answer can be found partly in Zhenguo’s statement, “students who succeed in a regimented school system and access top universities then fail to thrive as post-graduates: “we have the data which tells us this”.” Despite the apparent clarity with which he sees what needs to change in the future, he concedes that it would be challenging if Shanghai were to slip below its position in terms of Piza ranking.

    In one sense, I see the validity in what Su Ming is saying, “The challenges facing Shanghai are the challenges facing education all over the world”, but I disagree with his conclusion that Shanghai is no better placed to respond than anyone else to balancing stability within a changing global environment. In Shanghai, as in some other domains and countries future vision is clearer than in Britain, largely, I argue, because they are looking to the longer term, place a high level of trust in the professionals that have to carry forward reforms and are prepared to deny ‘tinkering’ by ill-informed, ill-advised politicians that so burdens our national system of education governance.

    Clearly you are right, Chris, there are no easy answers to the challenges you identify but I believe one of the most useful steps we could take is to uncouple the governance of education from the cycle of political regeneration every four/five years. It is vital that we establish a National Commission for education governance to take forward carefully selected reforms over the longer term if we really want to make a lasting contribution to the future of our nation and of our young people.

  2. […] see what they want to see when they visit Shanghai – a point forcefully made in this IoE post by Chris […]

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