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).
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.