China loves its exams and test scores. It’s an obsession deeply rooted in the country’s past, when Chinese emperors used demanding keju exams to select their revered imperial administrators.
Although the emperors are long gone, the tough approach to learning remains: pupils study incredibly hard for the gaokao – the university entrance exam and the passport to a better life. China performs well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) – or at least wealthy Shanghai does, or rather the three-quarters of children in the city who are included.
According to the OECD, which runs Pisa, 12- to 14-year-olds in Shanghai spend an average of 9.8 hours in the classroom and a further three hours on homework each day. It is a system that puts children under huge pressure to succeed from an early age, and promotes direct instruction over independent learning and compliance over challenge.
So it is a brave headteacher who would subject their pupils to the Chinese way and allow it to be filmed. Especially when the school has so much to lose. Bohunt in Hampshire – one of the first in the country to offer Mandarin – is rated outstanding by Ofsted and was the 2014 TES school of the year. The judges praised it for being “as interested in students’ personal development as in their academic achievement”.
In Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, 50 of Bohunt’s Year 9 pupils (the Pisa test age group) are taught for four weeks by teachers from top Chinese schools. They are then pitted against their peers. But right
from the start the dull delivery and rote learning bore the students and they misbehave. Headteacher Neil Strowger is unsurprised: “You’ve got a teacher…basically talking to a PowerPoint. I was only in the room for 20 minutes and I was ready to bang my head on the desk.”
Yong Zhao, the author of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world, who was raised and educated in China’s Sichuan province, would sympathise. Schoolchildren in China work like “forced slaves”, the professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education told Times Higher Education earlier this year. Chinese schooling is “authoritarian”, he says, and crushes creativity, individuality and any intrinsic interest in learning.
And that’s the problem with trying to import educational success from one culture to another: it just doesn’t work. In China, says one of the Chinese teachers, “as long as you’re a teacher, kids give you respect and do as they’re told”. That sounds great but, as with everything in life, be careful what you wish for.
For while we in the West gaze longingly at the Chinese school system, Chinese higher education is looking to the West to inspire its future. There is a concern in top universities that undergraduates are too compliant, too unquestioning and lack creativity, which is bad not only for them but for the economy. Where will the country find its innovators, its entrepreneurs, its disrupters? Of particular interest is the US liberal arts model that gives students the ability to think critically and independently, and to write, reason and communicate clearly.
“We want students who can look at the status quo and make a confident decision not to take part,” Mr Strowger says. “We want to bring up people who challenge.”
Forward-thinking Chinese universities would approve.