The question is: Are our schools soft enough?

Updated: 2015-08-28 08:28

By Li Jun(China Daily Europe)

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TV show based on unsound assumption, while 'victory' proves little about superiority

Authority, discipline and competition are the three eye-catching keywords to describe the Chinese way of teaching and learning, according to a recent BBC documentary series - Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School. It portrays Chinese teachers and learners as much tougher than their British counterparts. Bohunt school head teacher Neil Strowger believes that the tough Chinese way of education may help his students be better armed for an increasingly competitive world, with young Chinese people appearing to have an obvious edge, academically.

The hellish school life of the experiment group and the awful experience of the five Chinese teachers at Bohunt "Chinese" school have been harshly criticized in China, the UK and elsewhere. It has been widely debated that the rigid discipline such as no talking, no questions and showing obedience to teachers depicted in the series does not reflect the current Chinese way of education, and is more of a stereotype.

Superficial characterization of different models can be dangerous. The Bohunt pilot is based on the unsound assumption that the Chinese seeds of educational philosophy can be easily transplanted into British gardens. But educational endeavors are always contextualized, culturally. The ancient Chinese saying of Nanju Beizhi, literally southern tangerines and northern oranges, vividly illustrates the different conditionings of the same fruit - tangerines are big and sweet in south but become small and bitter in north, even if south and north are divided only by the Huai River.

Huge differences exist between the Chinese and British styles. The Chinese way of teaching and learning is a hard, more focused, demanding and formalized style, which values education as a critical instrument in individual perfection and social development. It originated from Confucian pragmatism in the seventh century when keju, the imperial civil service examination, was institutionalized. Students tend to be pressured, and sometimes forced, to learn by teachers who often serve as authoritative sources of learning.

The British schooling may be simply captured as a softer model: More individualized, diversified and process-based; students are freer to explore while helped by teachers, who see every child as a tabula rasa or a white tablet, an educational heritage of enlightenment carried on from John Locke since the 18th century.

The two styles actually overlap in many ways. The British soft style can be hard too: Extremely strict in authority, discipline and competition, like some grammar schools, as portrayed in the rock song Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd in the late 1970s. On the other hand, the Chinese hard way can also be very soft: Individualized, diversified, tailored and student-centered. The Confucian approach of educating according to individuality is a good example that has been practiced over thousands of years in China and other East Asian societies.

The Chinese style has students respecting teachers automatically, and normally being obedient, but it seems not to be the case at Bohunt. The clash here is mainly because both sides lack sufficient understanding of each other. Bohunt students have little idea about China, and it's not fair at all for the five Chinese teachers to teach them in English. As a result, the classroom with Chinese teachers had serious problems with disgraceful behavior - British students had no proper respect, attitude or motivation toward learning. It's more about the nuances of language and culture, rather than the gap in effectiveness of the Chinese style.

The final episode revealed that what I call the lion-style had won within just one month, and the result proves that the Chinese team had done much better than other classes. But it is very important to define what "better" means here. Is it better in terms of students' academic achievements, quantity, equity, creativity, individuality, morality, humanity, spirituality, or something else? Many may opt for academic achievement, and the competition result narrowed it to only three academic domains of students' learning. The victory of the Chinese style doesn't really mean it is superior over the British one, and vice versa, as academic achievement is just one criterion in assessing students' growth.

The single indicator of stunning PISA scores earned by Shanghai students has made the Chinese style of teaching and learning famed and mythical, worldwide. In fact, it's an expected, natural outcome of hard drilling, coupled with and amplified by educational pragmatism, the tradition of keju and gaokao, the national college entrance examination, and the neo-liberal regime of accountability movement in the process of globalization. It's not deniable that China has world-class students, educators, schools and universities, but the students who participated in PISA were actually from the top schools in China, as Shanghai is one of the most developed cities in the country, and schools there are much better financed and managed with abler students and teachers. Unfortunately, academic achievement has been used too often, too long and almost everywhere as the only, hard parameter for the evaluation of the performance of students, teachers and schools.

Is it time for everyone, then, to ask just one small question yet a big concern: Are our schools soft enough?

The author is an associate professor, education policy unit, faculty of education at University of Hong Kong, and past president of the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily European Weekly 08/28/2015 page10)