Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Chinese school triumphs over British system in four weeks

During my last blog, I predicted that - as a consequence of only having four weeks with pupils resistant to unfamiliar teachers, longer days and alien methods - the Chinese taught pupils' end-of-experiment results would lag behind their more progressive, British taught peers.

How wrong I was. This week's episode of Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School showed the conclusion of a four week - albeit deeply flawed - experiment which pitted Chinese traditionalism against British progressivism.

Despite being dealt a pretty miserable hand of cards, handicapped by the sheer unfamiliarity of their personalities and strategies, and the short timescale they had to cross the divide, the Chinese teachers triumphed. According to every measure, their pupils outperformed their British taught peers.

Of course the experiment was, as already pointed out, deeply flawed. But let's not kid ourselves: it was deeply flawed in favour of the child-centred approach. When one considers this simple fact, one cannot help but be astonished by the findings and draw some obvious conclusions. First, traditional methods are so manifestly effective that they were able to overcome the disadvantages besetting the Chinese teachers from the beginning. Secondly, and just as significantly, progressive methods are so ineffective that, in spite of the enormous advantages enjoyed by the British teachers, their pupils still failed to match their Chinese taught counterparts.

Are we concentrating too much on fun at the expense of learning and hard work perhaps? Not according to Bohunt's headmaster, Mr Strowger. He went from decrying Chinese methods as ineffective at the beginning of the experiment to, after begrudgingly conceding their superiority, berating them as inhumane at the end. The goalposts had shamelessly been moved, and, after apparently entering the endeavour with an open mind, he proceeded to ignore the experiment's findings. He had clearly learned nothing.

At this juncture, it is important to stress that I am not advocating the wholesale adoption of the Chinese approach. But we should be, and Mr Strowger in particular should be, seriously considering the implementation of many aspects, including a return to not showering teachers with opprobrium for the purported crime of talking too much. We need to expect more of our children and hand them back some responsibility. 

Alas, Mr Strowger, I suspect, after hearing his last comments and his undisguised dislike of teacher-talk, intends to change very little. He will no doubt continue to insist upon teachers delivering 'fun' lessons in an effort to 'engage' their pupils. It really is incredibly frustrating. More to the point, our children deserve better.


  1. You cannot draw any conclusions from an 'experiment' where only one side are given exam 'practise papers' to do as homework and the parents also emailed with further exam preparation by the teachers! The Chinese School were definitely 'better prepared' for these exams - and in the case of Mandarin it was even a different exam paper! The BBC (Ben Rumney) told the school, the parents and pupils that this would be a serious study supported by the OU (this is BBC2, NOT Channel 4 - this won't be another Educating Yorkshire) then took advantage of the willingness of all the participants to make the programme they wanted. Bohunt is a very good school. Mr Strowger is an excellent Head supported by a very strong team. As a parent with one child who has been through Bohunt and another who is still there (and participated in the Chinese school experiment - not that she featured much as she behaved!) I know how flawed this 'experiment' was and how manipulative the BBC have been. But then again, I was naive enough to believe the BBC would produce an honest comparison rather than this 'show' so why shouldn't you believe that the result was accurate!

    1. Thank you for such a revealing comment. Let's not forget the disadvantages suffered by the Chinese teachers, though. Taking these into account, perhaps the 'flaws' you highlight actually made the experiment fairer.

      But were they methodological flaws? I have my doubts. The Chinese system expects more of its pupils, after all. It expects them to work harder, longer hours, do more homework and prepare more thoroughly. Does this lead to better results? Demonstrably it does. Should we adopt some of their methods if we want to improve? Of course we should.

      As for Mr Strowger: yes, in our system he may be viewed as a successful head; but this simply illustrates the dire state of our schools. He encouraged his pupils to misbehave and appears to have learnt nothing from the experiment's findings. Whatever your doubts about the experiment's efficacy, and I certainly have mine, what cannot be gainsaid is the atrocious behaviour of Bohunt's pupils. They treated their overseas visitors with appalling levels of contempt. How can a school that produces - and allows - such behaviour possibly be judged outstanding by Ofsted, let alone awarded the TES school of the year prize? It's an indictment of our entire education system. We must face up to these unpalatable facts; our children deserve nothing less.

    2. Firstly, thank you for acknowledging and publishing my comments. I agree with your comment that the Chinese pupils work harder, longer hours and this leads to better results - and this is why we put our daughter forward to be involved in the 'experiment' - because we believed it was a great learning opportunity. However, I'm also glad you mention the indiscipline shown in the class. When the BBC talked to parents about Chinese School they emphasised that it was SCHOOL not CLASS. Although it would take place within the Bohunt grounds and use their facilities the conduct and disciplinary system would be initiated by the Chinese teachers and the responsibility of the Chinese School. Only if there were a real risk to student welfare would Bohunt be allowed to intervene. Parents were told that discipline would be very strict and follow Chinese practice. Well, in reality, there was only self-discipline in the class and some 13-14 year olds are better at that than others! If one pupils starts eating gum without being told off, then how long before others follow? Bohunt would normally have the perpetrator cleaning gum from the bottom of desks during their break. A faulty desk collapses and TV makes it look as though the pupil broke the desk. The Chinese School teachers struggled with Classroom Management and a lack of disciplinary tools - as well as lacking familiarity on what the expected standard was. Some pupils took advantage of this, and the BBC took advantage of the result - even to extremes! A faulty desk collapses and TV makes it look as though the pupil broke the desk. However,it is a pity that the behaviour in Chinese School was not contrasted with the disciplinary standards displayed within the normal classrooms. Bohunt works because it has effective controls and disciplinary methods - this program merely shows that if you remove these you end up with misbehaviour. Mr Strowger did not encourage pupils to misbehave (where did you see this? Typically they behaved better in his presence) and, if you look on the school website, you will see he has posted a letter on there about what he has learned from Chinese School. I don't know whether the BBC turned against Mr Strowger because he interfered when the behaviour was unacceptable or whether their agenda from the start was to show a 'journey' but it is clear from their choice of background music that they were not going to show him in a good light. Similarly, the choice of background music when the pupil brought in a kettle (he'd had permission from a Chinese teacher and it had been there for a week with him making tea for some teachers before someone decided it was a problem!) was also inappropriate. The parameters under which Chinese School operated were not made clear to the viewer - it needed an independent commentary to put events into context and provide some probackground rather than just leave it to a producer to tell the story he wanted.

    3. The Chinese school was in Bohunt so one would expect Bohunt's pupils to behave according to the school's usual expectations. One of Bohunt's pupils actually admitted that 'we, unlike children in China, behave badly' - hardly the admission of someone who normally attends a disciplined environment.

      As for Mr Strowger, he blamed the behaviour of the kids on the Chinese teachers. Instead of reading them the Riot Act, appalled by their treatment of overseas visitors, he pointed the finger of blame at the teachers’ traditional, didactic methods. So, too, did the Head of Maths. In fact, he appeared to revel in the misery being inflicted by the children, deluding himself that it proved the superiority of child-centred progressivism.

      All it really proved was his own inadequacies and unfitness for the position of teacher, let alone Headteacher. The children at Bohunt are great: quirky, intelligent and full of potential. Their Headteacher, though, is letting them down. In blaming the teachers for their poor behaviour, when he should be instilling the attitude that you treat everyone with equal respect, even if you find them difficult to understand, or even boring, he is encouraging the children to misbehave, be rude and then search for excuses. It’s extremely sad.

    4. 'Joe', I was enjoying a positive discussion with you but if you want to produce an answer full of your own prejudices rather than based on any fact then it is pointless continuing.

    5. I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm simply expressing my opinion. But I will leave you with this thought: if the Chinese school was acting as a genuinely separate organisation with a separate behaviour policy - something I very much doubt, especially when one considers Mr Strowger's occasional drop-ins - it makes its success all the more significant.

      In four weeks, a small group of foreign, unfamiliar teachers were tasked with setting up a new school, completely unsupported, teaching a cohort of Year 9 pupils (not the easiest year group) and assessed on the effectiveness of their methods. Astonishing! We could learn an awful lot from them.

    6. If your criteria for calling it a 'success' is 'did it make an interesting TV program' then the answer is yes! By any educational standard it was a failure. You take 50 pupils and give them a stripped down syllabus (they didn't teach Humanities and a few other subjects - the pupils had 'catch up' lessons after Chinese School finished for these). You teach them for far longer days and then give them 'practice papers' to complete during self-study to try and ensure that they 'beat' them main school - and they just about manage it! Bohunt were not supposed to have any say in the discipline at Chinese School but became very concerned about the welfare of some of the pupils involved and, no doubt, the reputation of the school and decided they had to step in - hence the talk by Mr Vaughan saying that they 'would now stand behind the Chinese School teachers' and the upset this caused the staff of Chinese School who thought they had failed.
      On a positive note, I think some lessons can be learnt;
      1) A class size of 50 is too big for this age group.
      2) Streaming kids on ability makes management of the class easier - if you have mixed abilities then some may get left behind and become disruptive, others may become bored.
      3) Maintaining discipline is vital for a school to succeed.
      The experiment could have been so much better and the program missed out on showing some interesting events. There was a lesson where the teacher showed the pupils how to make a Chinese Lantern. She was surprised that the pupils started making their own patterned lanterns rather than follow her pattern - in China she would have 50 identical lanterns whereas in Britain she had 50 different lanterns. She appreciated the difference!
      Oh, by the way, the comment further down has nothing to do with me!

    7. You seem hellbent on ignoring the Chinese school's disadvantages and, more to the point, hellbent on ignoring the experiment's final outcome - an outcome that was not disputed by Mr Strowger. In fact, at the end he appeared to concede the Chinese methods' superiority when it came to academic attainment and achievement. That's when he changed tack and, instead of challenging the Chinese approach's efficacy, he went on to brand it inhumane.

      On another note, I agree with your three observations, but would add one more lesson: traditional teaching methods are more effective than progressive ones. Just imagine smaller, disciplined classes organised according to ability being traditionally taught - standards would certainly rise.

    8. I agree with your latter point to some extent - I believe that traditional teaching methods suit the self-motivated pupil and would raise their achievement levels - however I do not think it is appropriate for all levels of ability.
      You are quite correct that I dispute the 'outcome' - if Mr Strowger did it would only come across as sour grapes! I believe that this outcome was orchestrated by the BBC to provide the story they wanted. Is it really a 'fly on the wall' documentary when parents are invited to a parents evening and told that they should not ask any questions? 5 parents are the mic'd up and given questions by the BBC that they are then allowed to ask. The BBC were all over this production - recruiting the teachers, repeating events for the camera, telling pupils to march in a certain way, showing events out of sequence or different events as happening at the same time. Guess who gave Mr Strowger the results to read out and then edited out all the caveats that came with them (initial, unconfirmed and un-audited)?
      The Chinese teachers did a great job with the cards they were dealt but the lack of any formal disciplinary process was a major problem. If those same chinese teachers had spent a couple of weeks following Bohunt staff and been allowed a proper 'induction' into the school, it's standards and expectations then discipline would not have been so much of an issue. If the pupils had been told that bad behaviour would lead to them leaving Chinese School then behaviour (and results) would have improved demonstrably - but the BBC wouldn't allow anyone to be excluded. Based on what the producer told the parents before filming started - did you witness any actual 'strict discipline'? I just heard teachers shouting louder or ignoring poor behaviour - I believe the BBC was primarily responsible for this failure. But it made a good tv show!

  2. As an "experiment", it was obviously massively flawed, but I think the show was revealing in a way that most of the "fly on the classroom wall" shows have missed. Normally the response to those programmes is a mixture of "aren't the teachers great for trying and caring" and "aren't the kids great, and it's so good when they get turned round". And that's fine, and it is part of the truth.

    The response to Chinese School has felt different- more "What are those kids like?" and "What- in the name of all that is holy- does that head think he is doing?" and "Is this really what an outstanding school is like?" (My answers, "Indulged adolescents", "What the main orthodoxy has been for years, and it's not quite as bad now as it was before 2010" and "Some of the time- especially if the teacher is new, low-status, or trying something challenging").

    TV-wise, it's quite a cute bit of misdirection. Appear to be making a show about Chinese education, and produce something that about an aspect of the current state of UK schools that you probably wouldn't have got normally. Because normally, almost everyone would have gone into "best face for the inspector" mode.

    As for the actual comparisons, you've said it all already. Hooray for the Chinese teachers. Hooray for the kids who got the point. Together they showed what an important part of what humanity is about. It's such a shame that this is any sort of surprise.

  3. Thank you for such an excellent, thoughtful comment.

  4. The mistake the comments above make is in assuming that the behaviour of the children in the Chinese method group was in some way typical of normal behaviour at the school. I know a number of Bohunt students and asked them about various aspects of behaviour: would your class speak over a teacher like that - "no, one or two of the worse behave kids might occasionally, but they would be dealt with". Would you skateboard in the school premises - "no way! you'd be in so much trouble" and so on. The BBC have behaved poorly in the way they have allowed the behaviour of a small group in exceptional circumstances, and being encouraged to behave in an atypical fashion to represent the behaviour of an excellent school.