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.

Photo credit: deathtothestockphoto.com

MOOCS: a first online learning experience

Apparently I don’t have enough to do preparing for my 6,000-mile move from England to Ecuador, so on Saturday afternoon I made a killer French onion soup and then signed up for my very first MOOC.

Jumping on the MOOC bandwagon

I know, I know, I’m about five years behind everyone else. What’s my excuse? Well, up until last year I was still busy with, y’know, real university. But after another year out in the big, wide world of work, I needed no excuse for a little extra bedtime reading and reflection. (Plus my mum runs a MOOC and she’s been going on and on about how great they are, so I thought it was about time I had a go.)

So I signed up to Coursera, filled out my profile and enrolled myself onto my first course: “What future for education?” Designed and delivered by the UCL Institute of Education, it’s supposed to make me think about the key actors in education (e.g. learners, teachers, schools) and what the system is going to look like in the future. Sounds perfect for someone relatively new to teaching!

First things first

Okay then. Week number one is ambiguously titled “How do we learn?” and the very first assignment is to answer the following question:

Reflect on your previous learning experiences. Think about one particularly successful and one unsuccessful learning experience. Consider what were the conditions that made this experience successful or unsuccessful for you and what this tells you about your own preferred ways to learn.

My first thought is that this looks very familiar. In fact, it’s basically identical to the first pre-course question I answered on my CELTA. And now I’m wondering if it’s cheating to copy and paste that answer here instead of actually doing the assignment again.

But in the name of honesty, let’s do this properly. It might even be interesting to see how my answer changes with the benefit of an initial teaching qualification and a year’s experience.

A ‘particularly successful’ learning experience

The first thing that springs to mind is the ‘French for Academic Purposes’ course I took in my final year of university. The class had a grand total of seven students and ran for two hours a week over the entire teaching year (which, at UCL, adds up to 20 weeks).

The success of it was at least partially due to the small class size and the immediate availability of great learning resources (access to a legal deposit library, round-the-clock IT services and support, well-equipped classrooms). But mostly it was down to our teacher, Mireille.

The importance of rapport

It’s very common in adult foreign language teaching to be on a first-name basis with your teacher, and perhaps that helped to establish a good rapport right from the beginning. But the academic relationship we developed had started two years earlier, when she had taught the first foreign language class I’d ever taken at university. Thanks to that year, I already had a great deal of respect for her as an academic thinker and an effective teacher, and she was already familiar with my particular style of thinking, learning and working.

So the groundwork had been laid, but what about the actual lessons? She more or less followed what I now recognise as the CELTA skills lesson format, that is to say starting by setting a context, introducing and analysing an academic text, delving deeper into the vocabulary presented, reacting to the reading material and then producing a critical piece or oral debate as a response. The methodology was textbook, but it never felt repetitive or predictable.

Context is everything

Choosing a context can make or break a lesson in the first ten minutes, but the possibilities are often limited by the scope of the course and the level of the students. Not so with this course, which aimed to prepare us for postgraduate study in a French-speaking institution; we were extremely high-level students open to any possible research area.

Instead of trying to cater to this impossibly broad range of study, Mireille chose topics that was clearly excited to teach: politics, gender studies, the European Union and sociology. Her subject knowledge was nothing short of encyclopaedic; her unfailing enthusiasm elevated what could have been memorising dates and treaty names in a foreign language to the pivotal study of the formation of a new world power, all from a fascinating global viewpoint. This was also the first time I’d been presented with gender studies as an academic discipline and it led to me (a Mathematics major!) producing a 4000-word piece on the state of the glass ceiling in France, in French. The examiners gave me 75 for that essay and I’m still oddly proud of it today.

Choose your words carefully

As for the texts themselves, she had personally collected every single one from academic journals and specially collated them just for our class. I once showed the booklet to the Parisian law student who lived across the hall from me; she couldn’t believe how advanced the language was. There was no holding back, no aiming too high, and Mireille’s certainty that we could cope with the material meant that we just did.

The choice of material was also very intelligent for a university with a large proportion of international students and a heavy emphasis on gender equality, which meant that the productive tasks at the end of the lesson had a ridiculously large range of cultural influences and viewpoints, and would frequently veer off into side-discussions about 1980s French government and the like. And I, against all odds and totally contrary to my fiercely logical, analytical nature, discovered that I actually liked the social sciences.

The story so far

So what do we gather about my personal learning preferences? I obviously value a teacher’s subject knowledge, the setting of high standards, and engaging material to learn from (even if it’s outside my main area of study).

But I think what I loved about Mireille’s class was her willingness to go above and beyond for us, her learners: taking the time to hand-pick authentic source material, pushing us to perform far beyond our own expectations for ourselves by encouraging high-level debate on advanced issues, and drawing out the vast range of experience and influences present in the class to create a much richer and more diverse learning experience for us all. In short, I think what I value the most in a classroom is the unfailing dedication of the teacher to their learners.

This is a strange conclusion for me to arrive at, mostly because I know I am fiercely independent in all things, not least in the classroom. I think Mireille’s constant support gave me the courage to develop my own opinions and present them with confidence; without that, I would have been quite happy to sit in silence at the back of the class, cram for the exam and leave with a decent grade but without actually engaging with the course.

And on that note

Well, that got a little out of hand – I’m surprised how much I had to say! I’ll leave the ‘unsuccessful learning experience’ for another blog post. In the meantime, you’ll find me making a start on the actual course material for this week, and maybe packing my bags for my intercontinental move on Monday …

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Have you ever taken an online course? What did you enjoy about it? What would you do differently next time? Would you try a MOOC, if you haven’t done one before? Let me know in the comments!