When Chinese Teachers Meet British Students

A BBC documentary shows what happens when intense Chinese instructors meet a classroom of UK teenagers accustomed to some degree of autonomy. A culture clash ensues. What China can learn from the experiment.

A Chinese teacher at Bohunt School, Hampshire, UK
A Chinese teacher at Bohunt School, Hampshire, UK
Xiong Bingqi*

BEIJING — There are more than a few lessons to be learned from the recently aired BBC documentary Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, which is set at an academically rigorous secondary school in Hampshire, England, and was broadcast earlier this month in both China and the UK.

The program depicts an experiment whereby five Chinese teachers are sent to the Bohunt School and charged with a class of British teenagers. Later, the students will take math and natural sciences exams to see how they compare with students from the same school who continued with their regular British teachers.

As the documentary showed, the British teenagers had difficulty adapting to the "high-intensity learning." The Chinese teachers were equally flummoxed by the reactions of their students.

Many in China support Chinese teaching methodology, praising it as being more efficient. But others criticize it as numbing and dull, saying it fails to take into account the opinions or feelings of students, or the ways in which they learn best.

The Chinese teachers thought the Bohunt students, aged 13 and 14, were unmotivated and poorly disciplined. The school's head teacher, in turn, was skeptical about that assessment.

It's a very valuable and interesting experiment. The media has widely noted that Chinese students outperform their Western counterparts in math and science testing. Consequently, Western countries have grown increasingly curious about China's approach. The British education minister even took a delegation to visit Chinese schools to gain insight from their teaching methods.

The BBC documentary is important because it takes a straightforward look at Chinese teaching methods and how UK pupils perceive them. As such, it's an intuitive and convincing launching point for discussing whether it's worth promoting the Chinese way of education.

Vastly different approaches

In the documentary, the Chinese teachers teach as they normally would in China while the British pupils react as they are accustomed. Their respective words and actions point to the huge differences in how education operates in the two countries.

In China, admissions testing is used at every level of the education system. Chinese pedagogy, as a result, is very focused on testing and academic performance. Teachers have absolute authority over pupils. And they have little concern for the viewpoints, personality, interests and physical or mental conditions of their students. Chinese teachers pursue a spoon-feeding style of teaching with the unique goal of raising academic performance, even if it means sacrificing the personality, free thinking and interests of their students.

Traditional British education, by contrast, attaches importance to the character and aptitude of children and takes a different approach to discipline. British schools also don't evaluate progress solely based on exam results.

Room for improvement

For British parents and pupils, the experiment offers an opportunity to consider how much they can and should care about test scores, and reassess the country's standard approach to education.

But there are also things China can learn from the documentary. In China, education policy is often driven from the top down before going through educational experiments to provide any scientific justification. In recent years, Chinese authorities have launched a series of educational reforms. Unfortunately, many of those reforms can't withstand scrutiny.

Certain policies also happen to be capricious. Two years ago, for example, one province eliminated an English-language oral comprehension component of its school entrance exam on the grounds that it was unfair to the pupils from rural areas, since they have much less chance to practice. A year later the test was reintroduced because "It's important that English teaching attaches equal importance to listening, speaking, reading and writing." A comparative experiment beforehand would have avoided such a waste of time and energy for all.

Zhu Qingshi, former president of the University of Science and Technology of China, also conducted several "experiments" during his 10-year mandate of trying to reform the university. He was initially convinced that the school's biggest problem was an underachieving faculty. So he pushed for certain internal training programs for the professors.

When that failed to yield tangible results, he concluded that Chinese professors as a whole are sub-par, so he started recruiting talent from overseas. But it turned out that teachers from abroad acted very much like the professors they were replacing — all they cared was conducting their own research and studies.

Time to grow freely

Only then did he realize that fundamental problem was in the system, not the teachers. As long as the issue of China's education system isn't addressed and solved, it's impossible for Chinese professors to change their focus of instant success and have the peace of mind to teach students well.

The crux of the problem with Chinese education is not that our pupils fail to master the basics or are lagging behind their peers in the advanced world. On the contrary, Chinese schools and families overemphasize academic knowledge.

Our children spend too much time studying and doing homework and are therefore prevented from developing other abilities and qualities. Such ignorance of personal aptitude means that despite China churning out many brilliant students, they are so far not so good at obtaining scientific Nobel prizes.

As a matter of fact, the educational systems of other advanced countries are more democratic, in which teachers and parents all play active roles. In addition, pupils in those countries spend less than one-third as much time in class as their Chinese peers. They take time to study but also to grow freely.

Learning makes sense only if the goal is to cultivate students with independent personalities and free thought. That's what China should learn most from the UK/Chinese class experiment.

*Xiong Bingqi is vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute think tank.

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