The Chinese work ethic is a wise one

8th March 2013 at 00:00
Success comes from diligence and hard work, not just talent, Roger Pope argues

I met a very old friend recently. I told him I was joining a trip to Shanghai to find out why the city's schools are so successful at teaching science and maths. He raised his eyebrows incredulously. "You don't need to go all that way to find that out, Roger," he chastised me. "It's obvious - they're Chinese."

In 2009, Shanghai was the first area of China to enter the Programme for International Student Assessment. The city came top in maths, science and reading by a comfortable margin. This was an impressive achievement for a young city of 23 million people, and in case you are tempted to put it all down to the skill of rote learning developed by having to learn hundreds of Chinese characters from a young age, one of the few measures on which Shanghai performed less well than the UK was a measure of memorisation.

So what did I learn on my trip to Shanghai? Well, the standard school day is eight lessons of 40 minutes, so the overall school week is not much longer than ours. Prepare to howl in envy, however: teachers take just two classes a day, so they teach just 10 lessons a week. The bad news is that there are between 40 and 60 pupils in each class.

Which would you prefer? Small classes and high contact time or big classes and low contact time? The Shanghai way meant that teaching in the secondary lessons we saw was teacher-led, but it was well-planned and precise. I did not see one pupil take an eye off the teacher in the entire 40 minutes.

This method is successful because of two fundamental traits in Chinese society. The first runs deep in the culture: that success comes not from chance or which class you are born into, but from hard work. Chinese folk tales celebrate heroes who succeed through diligence and hard work.

Compare that with our stories, where success depends on the luck of finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or some magic beans or a fairy godmother. We should immediately ban the term "gifted and talented", which implies that success is down to some sort of innate quality. We too need an ethos that says everyone can succeed if they work hard enough.

The second key to the Chinese ethos is less palatable to us: it is the culture of exams. For 2,000 years, the gateway to imperial service has been passing exams. Your passage from primary to middle to senior school is determined by how well you do in exams, culminating in the all-important gaokao, the equivalent of UK A levels, which determines the university you can enter.

Combine an ethic of hard work with the powerful motivation to succeed in high-stakes exams and you have the outcome of high commitment and motivation from pupils. Young people in Shanghai do three hours of homework every night. The pupils we met laughed at the notion of wasting time watching television or using social networking sites.

There is a flipside, of course. Older pupils bemoaned their lack of creativity and problem-solving skills. I am not sure that they are right, however, that a city that has the first magnetic levitation train in the world really suffers from a lack of these.

There is one more rather interesting observation to make. Chinese education is remarkable for its lack of interference and noise. The Shanghai government has a 10-year plan for education. I have no doubt it will stick to it. The curriculum is clear and the syllabus is set.

Contrast this with England, where we change our schemes of work to meet new exam specifications more often than we change our underpants. New academy structures, new exams, new Ofsted frameworks, new performance management, new teaching standards.

In China, teachers spend their time preparing lessons, marking work and meeting with pupils who need extra help to understand the next phase of the lesson. Now what can we learn from that?

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbury Community College in Devon.

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