"We give the knowledge: You learn"

06th April 2016

By Virginia Parker: Associate ELT-Consultant

It's 8:00 a.m., and I'm early for my 8:30 class at a private international university in Thailand. I know that "Eric", one of my Chinese students, will be there, clutching a grammar translation textbook and poised to ask me some kind of obscure question. On this day, however, he sits down at my computer and calls up a YouTube video. "I think you will enjoy this," he says.

That evening, I watch the video that Eric has recommended. It's a BBC2 programme that originally aired in August 2015, called Are Our Kids Tough Enough?. The premise is an intriguing one: Five Chinese teachers take over teaching 50 British students for one month in maths, science, English, Mandarin and physical education. At the end of the experimental month, these students face off against their counterparts in exams to see which system is "better".

The British students were given the full Chinese experience: Sat in rows, with all 50 students in one classroom, they listened to the Chinese teachers explain (in English) in a traditional set-up, while they copied down notes and diagrams from the board. They also had more hours of class per day than their British schoolmates, as well as two hours of daily self-study. Added to the mix were morning exercises, fan dancing, and even daily self-administered facial massages. These students were also were expected to excel in Physical Education - in China, a fitness test is one of the criteria for exams .

One interesting development was that once the novelty wore off (after the first few days), and perhaps sensing that their Chinese teachers weren't in complete control, the British students began acting out. As the Chinese teachers were used to rather obedient and respectful students, they were completely unprepared for rebellious teens who were used to a more collaborative class environment. One girl spoke out against her teachers, while another boy brought a tea kettle to class and made himself cups of tea during the lessons. Students played with their phones, slid down the banisters in the stairwell, and hid in closets. With so many students in the class, the Chinese teachers were in over their heads, and the British school administration actually had to step in to bring the kids back under control.

Frustration for students, teachers and parents was palpable, with just about everyone involved in the experiment breaking down into tears at some point during the month. For students and parents, the frustration seemed to come from higher expectations, a faster pace of teaching, and longer school days, leading to missing out on the more social aspect of school, like clubs and sports. Many students also objected to the competitive nature of the Chinese system, which pit them against each other, and ranked them according to how they performed against their classmates. For the Chinese teachers, the strain was clear from the initial week, as they were educational ambassadors, determined to prove that their way was "the right way".

Lower-achieving students seemed to suffer the most in the Chinese group, and even those students who were generally good students under the British system spoke about how they were robbed of their motivation by the competitive nature of the Chinese system. And yet, there were British pupils who flourished under the Chinese way, even going so far as to say they preferred to have a teacher just explain to them what they needed to know. Higher performing students also did well, but it was pointed out that there are students who will perform, regardless of what kind of methodology is used (independent learners who succeed sometimes in spite of the teacher).

The series was interesting from many different points of view. As someone who believes wholeheartedly in student-centred education, especially with adolescent learners, I felt validated as I watched the students misbehave under a crushingly boring class set-up. In fact, the only time that all the students were completely engaged was when the maths teacher brought in a complicated Chinese ring puzzle. Once that had passed, though, it was right back to agonizingly difficult teacher-fronted explanations of math concepts that were beyond most of the students' skill sets.

What was evident throughout the series, however, was just how much the Chinese teachers cared about their students, and not just because they wanted to win. They encouraged their students in a different way from the British teachers: insisting that they could do better, and be proud of themselves whereas the UK teachers tended to say 'Well, you've done your best and that's all you can do". 

The title of the series Are our kids tough enough? was definitely one point that I objected to. Stereotypes are strong. And, even within what we hope to be a diverse vision in the classroom, stereotypes about certain educational systems still exist. The idea that the Chinese system is too rigorous for softer British students, or that the Chinese are somehow dangerous because of their education, is not an idea that needs to be encouraged. The fact that this was a competition, and the overall attitude of "may the best system win" not only added stress to the participants of the experiment, but also unnecessarily underscored the concept of Asian diligence as a threat.

Another big issue was that the success of the experiment was determined through a sit-down exam. It's already quite well-known and well-accepted (by educational professionals, if not by the general public) that traditional teaching methodologies often result in better paper-and-pen exam scores, but this may not reflect what students can actually apply as acquired knowledge. It is pointed out during the programme that the UK lags behind China in test scores, but even the Chinese teachers themselves state that their own country's system destroys curiosity, creativity and critical thinking.

I discussed the series with Eric - after all, he had been an active participant in both systems, essentially doing the opposite of the experimental group - and he had this to say: "Maybe the Chinese system is too difficult. I like it better when I can have a nice teacher and nice classmates. You know, I left China because I was fighting with my teachers - so I didn't fit in there either".

Open Learning has set up a brilliant page with links to debates about both the British and the Chinese systems, supplemented with articles about stereotypes and interviews with the teachers who took part in the experiment. It can be accessed here:

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