Chinese teaching methods are “mind-numbingly boring”, “lazy” and “about delivering a monologue”. That, at least, is the opinion of Neil Strowger, head master of Bohunt comprehensive, the location for BBC2’s Are Our Kids Tough Enough?
The four-week Chinese school experiment with 50 of his pupils is causing quite a debate. Viewers will have little difficulty in spotting differences between British and Chinese pedagogy. Lessons in our schools are child-centred and, as a teacher of English at Bohunt school explained, pupils are “responsible for their own learning”. In contrast, and more logically perhaps, in Chinese classrooms it is the teacher who carries the responsibility for pupils’ learning. He/she is up front teaching the children in a didactic manner. It means that class size matters little, but the capacity of pupils to concentrate and to listen matters a great deal.
The Chinese classroom is more akin to the British classroom of the 1950s – whole class teaching with the teacher as instructor rather than being a ‘facilitator’ or “process manager of the learning process”, as one local authority ‘expert’ has described current ‘best practice’.
The head of Bohunt is aghast at the notion that we can learn anything from how we taught 60 years ago, even if such an approach is still favoured in China. “No educational approach or policy,” he told the BBC, “is going to turn back the British cultural clock to the 1950s. Not should it seek to.”
The ‘closed mind’ of the Blob, the self-congratulatory educational establishment, cannot and will not face up to reality. According to the OECD, we are the only country in the developed world in which those educated in the 1950s out-perform the current generation of 16-24 year olds. Whole-class 1950s-style lessons used in China may seem to us didactic, boring, tedious and uninspiring. Nevertheless, when it comes to educational standards, the Chinese are a long way ahead – three years more advanced in Shanghai by the age of 15. In footballing terminology, our kids are the Dagenham and Redbridge or Accrington Stanley to the Chinese version of Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
And it is not just Shanghai that our youngsters are trailing behind and not just Asia-Pacific advanced economies such as Singapore and South Korea. We are miles behind comparatively poor Vietnam and, closer to home, unable to keep up with Estonia or Poland.
Clearly, Chinese teaching methods and learning demands did not go down well with many pupils at Bohunt. I have some sympathy with them in terms of their inability to cope with the pace of the teaching. They are not used to being stretched and much of the Chinese teaching fails to engage. Nevertheless, some of their behaviour was appalling. It reflects a degree of egoism and self-absorption summed up by one boy, Josh, who announces that the longer Chinese school day has “breached” his “human rights”. In response he brings in a kettle to make himself a cup of tea to drink during lessons. Summoned to school, the boy’s mother expresses concern not about this misbehaviour but about the health and safety issue.
What are we to make of pupils using lessons to chat and to eat, to play on their cell phones, to apply make-up, to throw paper aeroplanes, to sing pop songs and, if they wish, to ‘bunk off’ altogether? How should we react to Sophie, who claims that “the stricter the teacher is, the more I want to misbehave,” and who considers being told off to be a laugh? What does it say about the education being provided by Bohunt, the recent Times Educational Supplement “School of the Year”, rated as “outstanding” in all areas by Ofsted and with GCSE results that put it in the top 10 in the country?
If the best of the best British schools cannot cope with traditional teaching methods, what would happen in the average ‘bog-standard’ comp? I suppose that the sad truth is, of course, that disorder is a feature of many schools in Britain, regardless of whether the methods of teaching are ‘Chinese traditional’ or British ‘child-centred’.
One of the Chinese teachers, Mr Zou, summed up the attitude of many British pupils very succinctly: “They’re not willing to learn. They just want to have fun. I worry about their learning.”