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An unheard voice from a Chinese teacher

Updated Tuesday, 8 September 2015
Yang, Jun, or Ms Yang in the 'Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school' series, reflects on her experiences of the British and Chinese education systems. 

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Ms Yang from the BBC Chinese school series with her colleagues and class I was extremely nervous at the time when the exam results were about to be revealed. I sat on the stage, with my head in my hand, waiting for the moment of truth. Fifty of my students were sitting in front of me, plus their parents, grandparents, and teachers at Bohunt, the hall was full of people. Could I deliver the result to prove myself? Could I add merit to the Chinese way of teaching and learning, which is generally unpopular within British school settings? Could I really beat the English teachers against all odds? My heart was beating fast, telling me “Yes, you can!” But my brain said otherwise. I had prepared for the worst and I was telling myself that at least I have given my best, and I have been truthful to myself and to my motherland. So I should be able to face the consequence without regret, no matter what.

I could not believe my ears when the news was delivered: the Chinese school had won! And it was 10% over the British school. I was speechless and started to throw kisses to my students. Yes, they have done it. I was so proud of them. My students successfully managed the Chinese style of teaching and learning, a school timetable with long hours, and an alienated philosophy. They have proved to everyone that the “teacher led” teaching style can also be effective. They also have left me to believe that young people are in fact very flexible, adaptable and open to changes.

It was not an easy task for the Chinese style of teaching to be truly accepted by British schools. When the Head teacher of Bohunt already had his preference on what makes a good lesson and who is to blame if things went wrong, we Chinese teachers had a hard battle to begin with.

  1. Discipline and teaching pedagogy:

In the conversation between Mr Strowger and a Chinese teacher with regard to the disciplinary difficulties in the Chinese school, he said: “So in your experience they (Chinese students) just accept it because they are being conditioned to accept it”.

I am not sure about the meaning of “conditioned” Mr Strowger referred to. My recent study of MA in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London indicates that Chinese students are better behaved and are higher academic achievers in mainstream British schools. The value of education in Chinese culture plays an essential role in their success. Respecting knowledge is deeply embedded in Chinese culture and respecting those who possess knowledge such as teachers and elders is part of our social morals. Therefore, Respecting for school rules, teachers, and behaving well in lessons are not matters of being “conditioned”, but rather reflections of Chinese core values and principles.

British students, on the other hand, need to seriously consider improving their general attitude and behaviour in schools. The fact that British Head teachers tend to find excuses for students when they are being disrespectful and rude, and to blame teachers’ for their boring lessons and disengaged teaching methods have contributed considerably to British students’ shockingly poor attitude and misconduct seen on the programme.

It is easier for the Head teacher to blame teachers rather than students, and it is a common practice in British secondary schools. Head teachers tend to avoid blaming students. In fact students are customers in the privatized and marketized education system. Education becomes a commodity and students are consumers, who bring funds to schools each year. Of course one can never blame consumers, as consumers are always right. It is, therefore, far easier to blame teachers, to put teachers down, as their positions can easily be replaced. Teachers are truly “conditioned” in terms of their lacking of autonomy. They are de-professionalized and become labourers in an industrialized school system.

There is no doubt that the teaching and learning strategies are very different between the UK and China. A typical Chinese teaching style is authoritarian and formal, where the teacher stands in front of a class and explains the textbook, while students sit and listen. Working as a Chinese teacher in a British school, I can see little open debate on what truly makes a good lesson and whether teacher should be free to choose different teaching methods for different subjects or content. The ideas on these issues seem to set hard like concrete and seeking for a perfect Ofsted lesson become an important part of professional development for British teachers. 

It seems to me that British schools have dismissed the “teacher-led” teaching style completely. Too many tasks that are packed into a short period of time can increase stress for learners and jeopardize successful learning outcomes. Engaged by busy activities does not necessarily mean effective teaching and learning have taken place. Students can lose track during the process of performing tasks and fail to see the logical links between each activity. Progressions can break down and students can be worn out eventually. The consequence is that students are becoming emotionally highly charged due to the frequently used “student-centered” learning style. This kind of energy can cause conflict and chaos in school corridors, canteens and sports halls. Some vulnerable students can be bullied easily because of the stress generated by this so-called active learning style. Teachers, on the other hand, become performers on the teaching stage, and the autonomy of teachers has been chipped away bit by bit. Teachers are subject to students’ academic performance and the job itself now resembles that of a factory production worker.

Although the “teacher led” teaching pedagogy is seen as passive, it does not necessarily jeopardize learning outcomes. Students are in fact more proactive and more responsible for their learning. Sometimes “teacher led” approach provides orders and instructions that are much needed by students. A simple work such as note-taking from board or textbooks, listening to teachers’ explanations, and sitting down quietly to label diagrams are also effective ways of learning. Behind the quiet picture of note-taking in class is an active learning process in which students proactively analyze and digest the incoming knowledge.     

I personally think that finding the right balance is important as both teaching styles have their strengths and weaknesses. Teachers should be able to find the space and time to apply any of these teaching methods free of fear and pressure. As we know, teaching style has an element of personal approach, reflecting individual teacher’s character and independence. When teachers differ in age, gender, personality, racial background, and subject specialty, how can the same “outstanding lessons” format work for each teacher in each subject? The fact that all teachers have to choose a  “student centered” teaching method regardless of other factors involved is what I see, from a Chinese teacher’s point of view, “conditioned” and brain washed, too. It demonstrates a lack of diversity but rather conformity, heavily reinforced by Ofsted.

There is no perfect teaching approach. Both “student centered” and “teacher led” teaching styles are effective if applied at the right time to the right group. To know when and where to make good use of it is essential and to find the right balance between these two teaching pedagogies would be ideal. I, therefore, would like Mr. Strowger to keep an open mind and to reconsider what he said in the programme: “We can’t have a Chinese victory, can we? That would be back to the Dark Age”. I wondered how Chinese way of teaching has anything to do with the Dark Age at all. 

  1. The other variables in the filming experience:

The filming was about teaching a group of 50 year 9 British students in a typical Chinese style and to take exams at the end of the period to compare which way of teaching produce better results. I was provided with science schemes of work that Bohunt teachers were using, so as far as I am concerned, this variable was kept the same and fair. We were delivering the same syllabus.

However, the other variables were not the same, which was not fair and put me at a more challenging position in this comparison experiment.

  • Class size:

I taught a class of 50, whereas my English counterparts taught classes of 30. My class was mixed abilities and theirs were single ability sets, which was easier in terms of lesson planning and progression monitoring.

  • One Chinese teacher battle three English teachers:

In Bohunt School, science lessons are taught in separate subjects by separate specialists. This means Biology, Chemistry and Physics are taught by three different subject teachers, who have been working in the school for years. They are familiar with their students and positive relationships have been established. I, as a Chinese teacher who is specialised in Chemistry, have to come out of my comfort zone and to deliver all three subjects in Science to a group of 50 whom I have never met before.

  • Cultural differences: 

Cultural differences between China and the Western world are very noticeable. Unlike Confucian culture, which focuses on virtue, morals and the harmony of society, Western culture promotes the notion of individualism and freedom, encourages individuals to be assertive, competitive and confident. Chinese culture considers rebellion against teachers, parents and authorities unacceptable behaviour; Western culture tolerates such behaviour. It seems to me that for British students there is no shame in answering back to teachers and parents, who are senior members of society.

Education has become a family business in Chinese culture, especially when “one-child” policy is in practice. Not only do Chinese parents get involved in their children’s education, but they also take responsibility for their children’s academic success. They believe that they have the obligations and responsibilities to help build their children’s success in education. They take their children’s academic failure as their own responsibilities because they feel that they did not do their best to work with their children. Children’s achievements equate to parents’ achievements, and the pressure to succeed academically is high on both parties.

Chinese philosophy is that “struggling is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength”. Chinese students repeatedly practice something until they have mastered it and during the course of struggle, they do not give up. But I found British students give up easily, and they do not like to do repetitive tasks. Chinese students are generally very good at Maths and are able to solve complicated questions quickly. This is due to their dedication and patience when doing repetitive exercises.

The extended evening self-study sessions in the Chinese school reflected the ideology of repeated practice and constant revision. In Chinese schools, learning does not stop after lessons. In fact, more learning and revision take place after lessons. Students take responsibilities for their learning and parents are heavily involved in supporting them. British schools focus on “assessment for learning” during lessons and emphasise less on the importance of students’ responsibilities for their own learning. It seems to me that in British schools learning only takes place in lessons, not after lessons. This notion has put students’ learning outcomes onto teachers’ shoulders during lessons, and withdrawn students’ responsibilities for their own learning after lessons. Evening academic revisions and consolidations are not guaranteed at homes.

Even though the Chinese method has won the competition in every subject against all the odds motioned above, it is still not recognised and given the credit it deserves. “Students could do really well despite the teaching rather than because of the teaching”, said Mr Strowger. 


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