Hidden Variables 2: The Chinese School

I have to confess that I only caught the last of the three programmes. There was enough there, however, to hint at some important hidden variables: those elements in education that are ignored or underplayed in the current regime for assessing the performance of schools and teachers.

The school in Hampshire chosen was OFSTED outstanding – i.e. it could reasonably be expected to provide top-of-the range teaching according to the current UK standard.   A mainstream group of year 9s was pitted against a selected group of 50, who participated in a Chinese style schooling (provided by teachers from China) over a four-week period, concluding with exams in (I think) four subjects, including maths, science and Chinese. Which education system would prove most effective at exam time? When the results were announced, the average marks of the students from the Chinese school were significantly higher in every subject than those of their rivals in the main school. What might this mean?

The first thing to note is that the teaching style in the Chinese school appeared to be dominated by teacher explanation, note-taking, practice and repetition. The lessons were content-driven, there was little room for discussion, rebellious behaviour emerged, but was not tolerated, complaints about not understanding were met with the challenge just to try harder. As far as I could see there was none of the sophisticated use of teaching aids, small-group discussion, peer- and self-assessment, carefully crafted lessons etc that was presumably going on in the control group (though to be fair, we did not see very much of them in the programme I watched). There appeared to be no formal data entry nor was there any use of pre-existing data – but there may have been in previous episodes.

In many ways it was a glimpse into a not-so-distant past in our system: an exercise book marked with flying ticks and a simple comment ‘not good enough’. One pupil complained about the lack of help in class – students were just expected to keep up. One of the Chinese teachers marvelled at the lack of desire to work and understand in the British children. However, another acknowledged that maybe there was something important in the British system – the fact that the students did have the freedom to explore and ask questions, rather than just learn what the teacher presented.

All in all, what the Chinese teachers were doing would at best have been judged ‘requires improvement’ under the current regime for assessing teachers. The fact that they got better results in the examinations requires some explanation. Learning clearly took place in spite of teaching techniques that are (for very good reasons) widely believed to limit learning unnecessarily. In the programme some of those practices were criticized by the pupils experiencing them and even questioned by the practitioners themselves.

One important piece of information left out in the class averages was of course the spread of marks. The Chinese school averages were higher, which is likely to mean that its highest scoring students scored higher than their mainstream counterparts. But that could still be consistent with its lowest scoring students scoring lower than their counterparts. Now one might well expect rapid content-rich teaching aimed at the frontrunners to allow these to make more rapid strides than the slower paced participatory learning offered to their direct rivals. However such progress of the frontrunners might well be at the expense of those who complained that they just didn’t get it. [That is what I remember school being like forty years ago as a pupil, though that may be an unfair memory.] However, if the weakest members of the class in the Chinese school did outperform their peers, then that would make the results even more striking.

So what factors might make a difference? One is clearly the astonishingly long school day (7:00 am – 7:00 pm). The students are simply spending much more time in school, much less time outside class doing anything other than school related activity. That time itself was highly structured with recreation carefully controlled. All the activities (which included dance and sport) are framed within an ethos of purposive, focused, collaborative ambition, with the responsibility to conform to the standards of success placed squarely on the shoulders of the student. This latter was clearly a significant area of culture clash between pupils and teachers. However, it would appear that by the end of the period, the school’s discipline structure had won out, the will to subvert had been broken and almost all students were committed to doing their best for the school.

So there are two things to highlight. The first is controlling time – and thus the range of things that students have the opportunity to give their attention to.   Only boarding schools in the UK can currently exercise that sort of control (for good or ill) over students’ lives, though some academies are making moves in this direction. The other is the will to commit oneself to the struggle for learning, even when that does not come easily. ‘Shaping the will’ is something more familiar from images of army training (or older models of public schooling) where we see the will being forged through adversity and deviance rooted out. Modern UK teaching prefers to invest its energies in ‘wooing’ recalcitrant teenage wills rather than breaking them, though this can distort problems by laying the burden for failure on teachers rather than pupils. Whichever style does it for you (I would on the whole prefer the latter) those wills have to be won over somehow and the Chinese school appeared to succeed. Particularly striking was the teacher who was simply terrifying. No one messed with her. That is a highly effective strategy in any system.

There are a couple of other things to consider. Highly content-led teaching (most of us will be most familiar with this from university lecturing) delivered by someone who is good at what they do demands more work from the listener, concentrating, making notes, trying to understand, trying to remember what has been said in the course of the hour. For those that commit to the effort over time (even if at first it is difficult), they not only grow in knowledge of content, but they also grow in the skills needed to get the best out of that kind of presentation – how to wrest understanding from a spoken text for oneself without scaffolding, how to pay attention to memory work. Is that possibly what happened for some of the students in the Chinese school over the course of the four weeks? This is not to say that this is the best way to learn for everyone (though it may be for some) but just because it is not the best does not mean that it can’t work. Indeed that should probably not come as too much of a surprise when one reflects on the last two and a half thousand years of educational history.

The final hidden variable was revealed in the story of one of the rebels, who had particular issues with the Maths teacher. After bunking his extra Maths classes he was detained and spoken to at length. The teacher spoke to him kindly, tried to understand his motivation (and demotivation), assuring him that he could do it if he tried. The same rebel scored well in the exam and explained afterwards what had brought about the change. The teacher had believed in him. That sense of an affirming and supporting relationship had been sufficient to win over an otherwise recalcitrant will. It confirms what most experienced teachers and what most difficult pupils will say, that it is the quality of relationship that in some ways matters most for learning – but how do you quantify that?

The experiment was only four weeks – that in itself is a distorting factor – and was judged on an exam (rather than long-term work patterns). It was also, as we have seen, uneven in a variety of ways. However, there is enough there to raise some interesting questions about how our inspection and assessment regime might reweight the variables.

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