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My fortune as a pupil in China

With 12 million permanent residents and a further six million migrant visitors, Tianjin is no mean city. Located about three hours' drive from Beijing, or 29 minutes by "bullet" train, it is designated as one of China's preferred locations for the promotion of international finance and trade. As such, the city is undergoing a dramatic and rapid development which will see it transformed over the next decade.

Last week, Education Secretary Michael Russell visited there as part of a tour to promote Scottish connections with China and to target Chinese students as a market for our higher education institutions. He also presented the 10,000th HND awarded to students from the area.

Coincidentally, Tianjin is also where nine Scottish teachers, including myself, took part in a two-week immersion course as part of the Confucius Hub project (designed to promote an understanding of Chinese culture and the study of Mandarin throughout Scottish education).

The Glasgow Hub happens to be based at Hillhead High, where I teach, which was my pathway to gaining a place on what turned out to be an exhilarating experience.

During our stay at Tianjin Experimental High School, we lived in the school dormitories, designed for pupils whose homes are too far away to allow daily travel. We had the opportunity to observe the routine life of the school: classes began at 8am and finished for most pupils at 6pm, although a long lunch break allowed some time for play. Each morning was punctuated by mass exercise sessions where the whole school occupied the playing fields and playgrounds to follow a tannoyed movement routine.

Over the course of 10 days, we attended numerous classes studying several topics: spoken Mandarin, Chinese language, calligraphy, knot-making, paper-cutting, Taijiquan, Chinese song and Chinese painting. Although we had a translator, the preferred methodology was an immersion approach and the slow processes of repetition, copying and rote-learning.

Oddly enough, despite the many and varied experiences and insights offered up by the trip - which I will no doubt eventually begin to bore colleagues with over the next few months - the first and most pressing reflection I have from the fortnight is of my experience as a learner in that bewildering scenario where my base skills in most areas was either non- existent or minimal. Communication, and therefore understanding on my part, was problematic.

It's an experience that many of our children face daily; and the perseverance required to keep going is quite daunting. For example, as the "numbers" teacher made his way around the room, asking each person in turn to sound out in Chinese a randomly-identified number from the board, I had a brief panic attack as I realised I hadn't really understood what was going on and had simply been carried along by the group response to the same exercise. He quickly passed over my bewildered silence.

After one lesson, it became clear that primary teachers are specialists at everything, whereas secondary teachers, such as myself, tend to be singular in our aptitudes. However, during the trip I got a thumbs-up from Mr Wu, our calligraphy teacher, for my Chinese character writing, which provided a warming re-assurance.

Teachers are well aware, of course, of the importance of reinforcement and feedback, but to experience its impact as a pupil, in a classroom situation where I was outside my own comfort zone, was insightful. Criticism was absent from the process but, occasionally, the absence of praise was quite revealing.

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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