Culture shock: can Chinese teaching methods work here?

The BBC documentary Are our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School is creating some discussion in the UK about Chinese and British teaching methods, but what about the reaction in China? Here are three anonymous comments from the thousands posted:

  • “Some people say that the Chinese education system doesn’t encourage innovation. A person who recently took the gaokao (the university entrance exam) said the questions have all been reformed and don’t ask for the rote answers that were common a few years ago. Now, the teacher tells us we should ask if we don’t understand something, and is more prone to discussing things with us. Students who are cultivated to be modest, understanding, and respectful of the authority of teachers will most likely become people who respect the older generation and follow order”;
  • “Looking at it from another point of view, Chinese students are better able to suffer in silence than students in the UK”;
  • “Chinese education is being demonised”.

The programme has gone viral in China and many Chinese people with fluent English are even going to the trouble of posting blogs with clips of the documentary and explaining in Chinese what each part is about.

Chinese educationalists are joining in the discussion too.

Yang Dongping, Dean of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, says that the divergence in approach is because of fundamentally different cultural backgrounds and that Chinese students are more suited to Chinese teaching methods and British students are more suited to British teaching methods.

Zhan Wansheng, Director of the China National Institute for Educational Research (CNIER), feels that interest from abroad in Chinese educational methods reflects problems in the West; he has said: their (ie the UK’s in this context) educational system always overly focuses on themselves and ignores grades.

Most Chinese were taught and pressured as teenagers especially for the college entrance examination; this explains their opposition to the gaokao, said Chu Zhaohui, a research fellow at CNIER. His comments reflect the fact that there have also been many adverse comments made in blogs in China about Chinese teaching methods.

China’s approach to education is built on a historical foundation; education has perhaps always been seen as a means to encourage social conformity. Leaders have been at pains to avoid 乱(chaos) and use education to promote values which will ensure stability and order.

In our own work at the IOE Confucius Institute, developing the teaching and learning of Chinese as a foreign language in our schools in England, we have seen how Chinese language textbooks in China and also in Singapore tend to engage with traditional culture and the stronger social messages that this delivers, rather than contemporary culture which is of greater interest to teenage learners whether in the UK or elsewhere.

中学为体,西学为用 roughly translated means “Use Chinese learning for matters pertaining to spiritual essence and use western learning for matters pertaining to practical use.” This phrase from the second half of the nineteenth century shows how China was already giving serious thought even then as to how to import educational ideas from abroad.

As both sides debate and Chinese schools look for creativity to give their students edge (well beyond the few changes to gaokao mentioned in the first anonymous comment) and UK schools discuss comparative Maths levels in the two countries, perhaps it is worth remembering the phrase used by Yang Dongping in his post. 水土不服 literally means not accustomed to the water and the soil – and in the context in which he used it, it means that transferring teaching methods between different school systems in different countries is potentially hazardous for both teacher and student!

Are our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School is a BBC documentary about a group of 5 Chinese teachers teaching Chinese-style for a month at a comprehensive school in Hampshire and was first shown on TV on 5, 11, 18 August 2015.

photo: BBC

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Posted in International comparisons

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This blog was written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
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