Photo credit: deathtothestockphoto.com

48 hours later: lessons learned from moving abroad

I’ve done a lot in the last 48 hours, including moving 6,000 miles from England to Ecuador, setting a microwave on fire, and attending an 87-year-old woman’s birthday party.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned somewhere between leaving my house in England and writing this post in Ecuador:

#1. Travelling gets harder as you get older

Until last week, solo travelling was an absolute piece of cake, which mostly involved a much more youthful version of me waltzing off into several beautiful (but ultimately commitment-free) sunsets. This week, solo travel means moving across continents with two pieces of checked baggage to last you for two years, and leaving your significant other behind in a move you may live to regret for the rest of your life.

I suppose the older you get, the more roots you put down, and the harder it is to let go.

I also got really upset saying goodbye to my parents before leaving, which can only mean I’m emotionally unstable growing up. My response? Well, I’m not sure I should be giving away advice this good for free but … I watched a lot of sad films on the plane and just cried a bit. You heard it here first, folks!

#2. American Airlines wants you to suffer

I flew London to Miami to Guayaquil, and American Airlines told me I’d have to ‘pick up my bag at customs in Miami and re-check it to Guayaquil’.

What does this actually mean? It means that when your plane lands an hour behind schedule, you have to sprint through a multi-terminal airport devoid of any useful signage, frantically race to your baggage carousel and pay $5 for the privilege of using a trolley to ferry your suitcases about 200m down the hall to another, slightly smaller baggage carousel.

Are American Airlines incompetent, or are they just trolling me? Answers on the back of a postcard …

#3. Some things never change …

… like Guayaquil Airport, for example. It has not changed one iota, and that is a beautiful thing because it means I know exactly where to go, what to do, and how to get through immigration in the shortest possible time.

I also met a sales rep from a chocolate company who was travelling to Guayaquil for a cacao conference. (How do I get that job?!) He asked for some Ecua-tips, so I told him it was the end of humpback season in Puerto López. He didn’t seem to know there were whales in Ecuador – why does nobody seem to know that there are whales in Ecuador?

#4. Surprise! You suck at Spanish again

One month away has played havoc with my listening, accent and vocab. (On the bright side, I did get told that my accent is pretty guayaco last night, but I think my apartment manager was just being sweet.)

In July, after two months of solid immersion, I got pretty used to not having to try when speaking Spanish. That privilege has definitely left the building.

#5. A single Reese’s peanut butter cup is not enough breakfast to sustain you after 24 hours of transatlantic travel

Breaking news! Warn your loved ones!

#6. Access to drinking water is the greatest privilege known to man

Wasn’t sure if the tap water was safe to drink in the apartment and I still don’t own a saucepan, so I filled a mug with water and put it in the microwave for seven minutes. Thing is, it already had the teabag in, and when flammable materials like string and paper get very, very hot …

You can probably take it from there.

#7. Flatmates are horror stories waiting to be written

After 24 hours in the apartment, I’d met a grand total of zero flatmates, and started to wonder if anyone else actually lived here. This evening, I decided to bite the bullet and knock on a few doors to introduce myself.

Door #1 opened to reveal a fully naked guy who seemed to only remember he was fully naked when it was too late, and made a half-hearted attempt to hide behind the door while letting his head peek out at an awkward right-angle.

“Hi, I’m Sanchia, I just moved in here and I wanted to introduce myself!”
“Uh, hi.”
“Nice to meet you. I’ve got the room next door.”
“Okay. Is there a problem?”
“No, I just wanted to introduce-”
*door slams in my face*

Okay then.

#8. Community is everything

So I took all those positive, peppy life lessons and went to see my Ecuadorian host family, the people that looked after me while I was volunteering in Flor de Bastión from May to July this year. And as usual, they made me feel like I was just a long-lost older sister who had finally returned to the family. Mirka told me about her first week at university, I took Dalila to school, and then Zoila took me and Jonas to her mother-in-law’s 87th birthday party, where we had caldo de gallina (chicken soup but made with hen meat, which has a slightly tougher texture), pasta salad with rice, and cake and jelly.

And suddenly, everything was perfect.

Photo credit: pixabay.com

Spotlight on education: are Chinese schools better?

Maybe it’s because I’m a newly qualified teacher, but I’m totally addicted to the emerging genre of school-based reality TV. I’ve just finished watching BBC Two’s ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough: Chinese School‘, in which the Chinese schooling system lands in a British state school to decide once and for all which one is better. Half the kids get real Chinese teachers running their school lives for a month, and the other half stick with the usual British system.

Obviously, the Chinese teachers are convinced that their 12-hour days of lecturing are better; the British teachers say the same thing about their more progressive, Constructivist method. Intriguingly, after four gruelling weeks and some external testing, the Chinese system emerges on top, much to the chagrin of the school’s British headmaster.

What’s more, this tiny sample also appears to reflect real-life outcomes; both empirically and anecdotally, Chinese teenagers can be shown to be consistently outperforming their British counterparts. But does that necessarily mean they are coming out smarter, more capable or better equipped for their futures? And if so, why?

Breaking it down

There are a million factors that can be (and have been) analysed in order to account for academic attainment, including cultural background, parental income, and IQ, to name but a few. The draw of this particular experiment was that the Chinese learning approach was tested on a group of British school kids, using another students in the same school as a control group. So instantly we’ve removed national, regional and educational cultures from the equation. Add that to the fact that before the experiment began, the Institute of Education (IoE) stated there was no ‘degree of [academic] separation’ between the two groups.

What possible factors remain? Well, three things immediately spring to mind: the sheer motivation of being on telly, differing curriculum design, and assessment bias.

The Hawthorne effect

Looking at the first idea, it’s true that the Chinese group (that is to say, the British sample group receiving Chinese education) had far more screen time than the British (control) group. The Hawthorne effect says that this gives the Chinese group a much stronger motivation to do better, precisely because they know they’re being observed. However, it’s possible that someone on the team had enough science education to foresee this potential problem, and that the camera crew therefore filmed both groups equally and only leant towards showing more of the Chinese schooling once the editing process began. (It’s also possible that this didn’t happen, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for now!)

Long jump, languages and learning

So we can move on to the second idea: differences in the way the British and Chinese curricula are designed. While two of the subjects in the study – maths and science – were familiar parts of a normal British state school curriculum, there were two notable variations.

The first of these saw PE go from a filler subject to a rigorous assessment of a range of physical abilities, ranging from the highly demanding shot-put to the athletic long jump to a delicate, graceful fan-dance. While events like these may sound pretty exotic to someone who received a British state school education, the salient point is that not one of these events is a team game; each emphasises the ability of the individual and comes with a pass or fail grade. Could it be that the all-or-none mindset of individual competitive sport had a significant effect on pupils’ attitude to learning, and actually engendered a drive to achieve that wasn’t there before?

The second adjustment to the curriculum involved language-learning: while the Chinese group were taught Mandarin from scratch, the control group continued with English lessons as normal. The academic benefits of learning languages have been extensively documented, and there is some evidence to suggest that the simple act of being exposed to foreign language teaching can account for improvement in other subjects. Whether or not learning Mandarin could have accounted for the 10% average improvement of the Chinese group compared to the British group is another question entirely.

Examining the difference

Changes to the curriculum aside, we should consider the third possible factor in our list: the test that the two pupil groups sat at the end of the experiment. Presumably the rationale of making the kids sit an external exam set by an independent assessor like the IoE was that the results would be free from bias. Looking at the interests of the IoE – a leading British research institution with fairly progressive views on education – I’d go so far as to say that if any bias existed, it would be in favour of the British group. Add to this the fact that the (British) headmaster of the school obviously and openly favoured the British approach, repeatedly predicting during the experiment that the control group would outperform the test group in the end. Yet despite having all of that motivation going for them, the Brits were simply outclassed in the assessment.

Why is this? It’s possible that any kind of written assessment is always biased towards students who have been coached to swallow and regurgitate vast amounts of specific information. If there is a curriculum containing a fixed amount of facts and even a fixed number of ‘problem-solving methods’ that a student is expected to know, we could argue that any teacher given a 12-hour academic day might have time to actually teach all of those facts and methods – but nothing more. Progressive and Constructivist schools of thought say that these students will come out having learned, but not having learned to learn; that is to say, when presented with a higher-level problem, they will lack the skills needed to effectively tackle it.

Does this theory hold up in practice?

Is it even possible to measure metalearning? Some studies have noted that Chinese students studying at British universities struggle noticeably in their second and third years. This aligns nicely with the theory that they ‘learn’ to an advanced level – covering the material studied in first year – but don’t ‘learn to learn’ and therefore lack the study methods needed to deal with the complex issues presented in later years. However, while studies like the one linked above are consistent with this hypothesis, they don’t actually prove it.

Whether the success of the Chinese schooling system lies in curriculum design, approaches to assessment, a combination of the two or none of the above, it is certainly true that we have a huge amount to learn just by making the comparison. Thought exercises like this one allow us to reflect on our assumptions about what does and doesn’t work in the classroom; surely this can only be beneficial in the long run, particularly when it comes to judging practices that are totally foreign to us (pun very much intended).

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What does teaching look like in the country where you grew up/ currently live? Did the result of the experiment described above surprise you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.