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

12 goals to make the most of my Ecuadorian experience

In exactly three weeks, you’re moving halfway across the world. You have two years, and no plans. What do you do with all that time?

I’ve always been an overachiever. It’s not that I’m particularly smart or gifted or capable, just that I have a really, really deep-rooted fear of achieving nothing. In my worst nightmares, I look back over my life and realise that I’ve wasted all my time just getting through another day, without having actually made the effort to improve myself or the world in any meaningful way.

Thankfully that’s not the reality yet and I’m pretty determined to keep it that way! With that in mind, here are 12 things I’d love to attempt, if not achieve, during my first 12 months living in Guayaquil.

Language

1. Speak Spanish like a true guayaquileña

After 120 hours of tuition and ninth months in Spanish-speaking South America, I’m capable in Spanish, and was even mistaken for Peruvian once. Once! But being conversationally fluent isn’t enough – I want the same freedom in Spanish as I currently have in English. I want to be able to talk about classical music and modern feminism and why Port Salut is the king of cheeses, without breaking a sweat or having to search for a word. And most of all, I want that sentence to come out of my mouth like I’d spent my whole childhood growing up in Guayaquil. Impossible task? Don’t care, let’s give it a go!

2. Turn “I used to speak French” into “I speak French”

I feel like an idiot for letting it get this far. I used to be pretty damn reasonable in Parisian French and even waitressed in l’Hexagone for a while, but now it takes me hours to string together the simplest of sentences. The most frustrating part is that I can still understand and read French as well as I ever could, which means it’s all still in there somewhere! I just have to get my act together and actually practise. I know this is a weird one, because I’ll be thousands of miles away from native French speakers, but not being in a francophone country is not a good enough excuse anymore. Allons-y!

Travel

3. Spot turtles in the Galápagos

With a smaller paycheque and a longer visa allowance comes … more domestic travel! Ecuador may be small but it has cheap public transport and incredible biodiversity, so I’d be an idiot to miss out on a visit to the world-famous Galápagos Islands. Besides, Charles Darwin is pretty much the only connection between England and Ecuador, so really it would be culturally ignorant of me not to go … right? Right? Sigh. I have no idea how I’m going to afford it, but in my mind’s eye I’ll be turning 24 on white sands and palo santo leaves, watching miniature sea turtles as they hatch from their eggs and scurry towards the sapphire-blue waters.

4. Watch wild condors in the Andes

Don’t mess with these beasts! Condors are regal, graceful, and much, much bigger than you – in fact, they’re the second biggest bird in the world, after the albatross. Native to South America, you can usually find them on the flag, crest or coat of arms of any Andean nation, and with good reason – thanks to their intimidating size, they generally represent health, strength and power. I got the fright of my life when I first strolled into a condor aviary in Quito (should any bird ever be quite that large?) but warmed to these incredible creatures after a visit to an animal sanctuary in Peru’s Sacred Valley. It’s one thing to see birds flying around in enclosures, but it would be an honour and a privilege to see them in their natural habitat, doing their condor thing.

5. Eat encocado in Esmeraldas

… and because I’m incapable of making a list that doesn’t include food, here’s goal number five! Encocado (which literally translates as “coconutted”) is pretty close to my idea of gastronomic perfection – traditionally an incredibly aromatic fish or prawn dish cooked in a flavour-rich base of coconut milk and fresh spices. Please excuse me while I wipe the drool from my keyboard. And where does this heavenly dish come from? Esmeraldas, the Ecuadorian coastal province famous for pristine beaches, laid-back lifestyles and heavy Colombian cultural influences. Eat, sleep, salsa, repeat …

Culture

6. Learn to dance bachata

Okay, maybe my vision of dancing salsa on a beach somewhere in rural northern Ecuador is a little farfetched. But learning bachata isn’t – in fact, pretty much all Ecuadorians seem to be able to dance basic bachata, and if they say they can’t, they’re lying! Or at least, their dance standards are a hell of a lot higher than mine, which is probably the most likely explanation. This style of music and dance took a little getting used to, but after nine months of Romeo Santos songs blaring from car radios I’m officially hooked. It’s romantic, it’s impressive and most of all it’s a unique part of Latin American culture. I’m not scared I’m not scared I’m not scared I can do this.

7. Learn to cook seco de pollo

What’s that I hear you say? Food-related items made it onto my list twice in the space of three items? Hush now, let’s focus on the matter at hand: the traditional coastal dish of seco de pollo. This universal favourite keeps natives and travellers alike coming back for more; I was once asked to describe it to a Guayaquil newbie, and without a second’s hesitation I told her that it tastes like “warmth and love”. And it’s true – if you don’t believe me, try it for yourself!

Study

8. Educate myself about international development

It’s one thing to be interested in a topic, but it’s quite another to dedicate your life to it. While I’m still deciding whether this is the career for me, I’m so grateful to be able to volunteer with The Starfish Foundation and gain a small insight into international development projects in action. However, practical experience is not enough – I’d like to educate myself about the things I’m seeing. Thank goodness for online long-distance study; from October, I’ll be taking a Masters-level module from London’s Institute of Education (now a part of my alma mater, UCL) and getting a brief introduction to the issues surrounding development work from an academic perspective.

9. Apply for my Masters degree

On that topic, I’m thinking of going back to university in a couple of years’ time and getting my Masters degree. I know I want to study education and international development in some form, but at this point the options seem limitless; there are literally hundreds of courses, all of which promise some unique academic insight or exclusive career opportunity or world-class teaching that the other courses lack. While I’m sifting through the possibilities, I’m also debating the idea of studying abroad, that is to say, outside the UK. If anyone has any advice, opinions or suggestions about this, please do get in touch – I need all the help I can get!

Work

10. Expand my experience in development work

Leaving school and working full-time before starting university was the best decision I ever made. It gave me amazing work experience, a solid grounding in the real world, and the wild-eyed determination to exploit my time as a student to the absolute limit – so there was no way I was ever going straight from an undergraduate degree to a Masters degree! The next two years in Ecuador should give me more than enough time to add valuable real-life experience to all that textbook learning, and hopefully make me a better student and citizen when I eventually decide to go back to university. Plus, development work as a career is all about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, not what or where you studied.

11. Teach a new specialty

Teaching English is such a rush, but while I love the variety and depth of General English classes, I’m also dying for a new challenge within English teaching. In January I taught my first ever English for Specific Purposes (ESP) course, a one-week intensive programme of medical English for students from a plastic surgery clinic in southern Spain … and I loved every second of it! I’ve already spoken to my future boss about this, but I really do hope I get the chance to work with some exam preparation or technical English classes during my two years in Guayaquil. Not only is there a strong sense of motivation within the class, but as a teacher I get the chance to really push my knowledge of my own languages – it’s every linguist’s dream job!

Personal

12. Go on a real date

Maybe this one is silly and irrelevant and highly inappropriate given that I just got out of a five-year relationship. But I’m 23, and this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve not been tied to someone else. And because of all that, I’ve actually never been on a real date, and I’m writing it down because I think it’s probably okay to want to have that experience. Is that okay? It’s not that I want to meet someone – heaven knows I’m not looking for any kind of relationship in the foreseeable future – it’s just that I feel like everyone else has gotten to do it, and I haven’t, and it looks fun, and seeing as everything else about my life is totally weird and inappropriate anyway, why not?

Do you have any goals for the rest of the year? How about for 2016? Share them with me in the comments, and maybe we can help each other achieve them!

Photo credit: deathtothestockphoto.com

Everything is going wrong, and it’s bloody brilliant

The morning of July 21st started out as a fairly normal Tuesday morning in England. The sun rose, the birds sang, the postman delivered the post. Then I woke up, and decided I would live the next two years of my life in Ecuador.

Maybe ‘decided’ isn’t the right word. I had been deciding for days, writing mind-shatteringly convoluted pro-con lists, rationalising that my choice in the end would make no significant difference to my long-term achievement in life, trying to imagine myself happy in London, trying to imagine myself happy in Guayaquil, trying to imagine myself waking up in a year’s time, knowing I’d made the right decision. I just didn’t know what that decision would be.

And then I ate my lunch on Monday 20th July, and thought about how sad it was that I couldn’t even get through a plate of chicken and chips without posing hypothetical questions about the meaning of success and the importance of self-fulfilment, and I decided not to decide anymore. I just decided to do nothing for a while.

So I went to bed, and I woke up, and it was Tuesday, and I suddenly knew I was going to Ecuador. I’m not sure when it was decided, but I knew in that moment that it didn’t matter how much longer I wanted to think about it. It just was. I was going to Ecuador again, and it was bloody brilliant.

So I wrote to my future boss and accepted his job offer, and I put some waffles in the toaster, and I got some quotes from international removals companies and realised I couldn’t afford to ship anything and that once again I would be packing my entire life into a suitcase to move to a new city, and I felt the thrill of adventure rush through me like a sudden gust of wind that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and your skin prick with goosebumps.

Two days later I broke up with my boyfriend of four years and nine months and I watched him leave the house and walk away and turn the corner until I couldn’t see him anymore and I cried so hard that I had to sit down because I couldn’t breathe properly, and I was silent in the certainty that I was doing the right thing.

On Wednesday 29th July I sat down with a spreadsheet and worked out that on my new salary I’d just about have $25 a month left over for my travel budget, which would mean internal trips only for the next two years. No more exploring new countries for this serial traveller. So I opened up my laptop and deleted the folder marked “Travel Goals & Inspiration” and felt incredibly free and open to the vast possibility of life.

The next afternoon I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom surrounded by black bin bags. As I methodically recycled, donated and binned seventy-five percent of my worldly possessions, I couldn’t help but feel perfectly at peace with myself for the first time in a very long time.

On Sunday 2nd August I sent an email resigning from my prestigious, well paid, highly sought after, full-to-the-brim-with-benefits graduate job that I had worked solidly for three months to get. A day later, when the HR representative called to ask me why I’d quit, I told her that I’d been offered a job more in line with my long-term career goals, and that I was taking a 75% paycut for this new job and that it didn’t even come with proper health insurance. And as much as I tried to hold it back, a grin cracked over my face as I told her how sorry I was to have to turn the other opportunity down.

Today I watched the last of the people I went to high school with graduate from her medical degree and I thought about all the future doctors, lawyers and bankers I have known and I thought about coming back to England in two years’ time without savings or a car or a house or a masters degree or a business or a family or any of the signs of success that you’re supposed to have, that you’re supposed to want to have, and I felt like all the dots had finally been joined up.

Everything is going wrong, and it’s bloody brilliant.