Is There Anything To Be Learnt From Programmes Like ‘Chinese School’?
There has been extensive media coverage of the differences between Asian education and British of late, fuelled by experimental documentaries like the recent version where five Chinese teachers were placed out of their context into a UK school to see if Chinese teaching methods would ‘cut it’ in a UK state school.
This debate seems to have emerged out of the comparisons between Asian approaches to education and British, made by the former Education Minister Michael Gove during his memorable period in office. Calling, rather anachronistically, for a ‘cultural revolution’ in UK schools, Gove referred to the high PISA rankings of countries like Singapore, China and South Korea and pointed to their marked success in Maths examinations as a potential model for the future of British education.
It is bold to claim to hold a view on education throughout the whole of Asia, as some commentators do, but clearly there are some valid comparisons that can be made. Three years spent as part of a start-up team for a very successful British school in Jeju, South Korea have been hugely enlightening for me and there is certainly much that is revealed by the culture surrounding education in both UK and South Korea that is worth further discussion and investigation.
One obvious difference between the two approaches is the centrality of Confucianism in Korean education, something totally absent in the UK. Not only does this place respect and veneration for teachers at the heart of society, but also means that families value education above all other things, as a means of building for the future and training the mind. Huge sacrifices are made to provide a child with a good education. To be a teacher, is to do something important and meaningful.
With Confucianism, comes also a respect for elders and hierarchy that is no longer so evident in British schools. This brings positives, such as looking up to older role models. In its less desirable manifestation however, hierarchy and age-related power relationships can be abused by older students, unscrupulous in exploiting or bullying younger pupils, to the degree where it is a real social problem in some Korean schools.
The most inspiring difference I observed was the emphasis in UK education upon the Arts and Sport. Some Korean students, having previously experienced very little in their public schools in the way of competitive sport or a creative Arts education, were literally and figuratively transformed by their experiences on the stage, in the orchestra pit and on the football field.
In terms of confidence, personal skills, willingness to take risks and work in teams, students were virtually unrecognisable in the way they presented themselves after three years of experience in these fields; the most convincing evidence one could see for the value of both these curriculum areas.
Related to this, a culture of encouraging risk-taking, ingenuity and curiosity is central to a good British education; this is a feature that Asian educators are increasingly seeking to integrate, but as yet, is not characteristic in many East Asian educational establishments. The growing success of the IB, with its focus on the Theory of Knowledge will go some way to changing this focus. Yet at the moment, it is an anathema for many Korean students to question an argument or theory that a teacher is conveying: respect is key. Whilst some may desire this level of obedience, it does not prepare students well for their future or develop the critical approach essential for academic success beyond examinations.
So there’s not a clear cut comparison to be made. Whilst undoubtedly the British education system is by no means perfect, both sets of educators have much to learn from each other and generalisations are unhelpful on both sides. Meaningful lessons can only be learnt by a genuine and deep understanding of each other’s cultures and that takes time, intelligence and objectivity.