Britain is hoping to learn from the success of Pacific Rim pupils, while countries like Taiwan are looking at the British model, says David Reynolds.
Over the past year more and more people have lined up to praise the teaching methods of Pacific Rim countries such as Taiwan. Prince Charles, politicians of both main political parties, chief inspector Chris Woodhead and many others have praised their traditional approach and have called for their whole-class interactive teaching to be used more here.
These calls are not surprising. We tend to do less well in international surveys than countries who use whole-class interactive teaching. Many practitioners have been under severe pressure to introduce more of it, and have been fascinated by the potential of these new methods.
These calls are also healthy, since for too long we in Britain have only sought benchmarks from the best of our own practice, without looking to see if there are better ones in other countries.
But at just the same time as some in the West have decided the future lies in the adoption of Eastern methods, the East has decided that their future lies in trying out Western methods. These societies see a need to adapt exactly what many of us in Britain have wanted to emulate.
These societies are well aware of what their systems of education have done for them. Taiwan, for example, possesses children who do well in international surveys despite having mostly semi-literate grandparents and parents with little secondary education. Their technology of education is a relatively simple one, involving much instruction in large classes. The technology is given to all teachers through their initial teacher education and subsequent in-service training. It involves mechanisms to eradicate any trailing edge of low-achieving pupils, and studies pupils by frequent testing.
However, this system is now much more criticised than before. Whole-class teaching is now agreed to involve costs for the extremes of the achievement range, since teachers have to teach "to the middle". While the less able may be caught up, the more able may remain unstimulated. Situations where there is high control over children's learning may not produce children who can work independently. They may discourage the generation of new ideas and creativity may not be easy to achieve in such ordered settings. Children who are used to working in one large group are unused to the collaborative small group work that modern industrialists want.
For all these reasons, there is now a belief in societies like Taiwan that Western traditions need to be blended with their own. A British visitor will be plied with more questions about the progressive school Summerhill during a week in Taiwan than in a lifetime on the British conference circuit. Enthusiasm is high for what they label open education, based upon a rapid growth of open-plan schools and associated team teaching in Japan.
Taiwan has some pilot "open education" schools. Japan is said to have reduced the customary very high percentage of time that pupils are taught in whole classes to 60 per cent. Taiwan has just held its first government sponsored conference on open education, with speakers from the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.
There is a world of difference though in how these societies are approaching the task of changing their educational system, compared with how we in Britain have customarily behaved in ours. They are searching the world for people and evidence that they can cherrypick to give their system a new blend.
They are aware that more is known about how to affect and alter the academic outcomes of education than the social ones. They are seeking the technology for new outcomes before they begin any reforms, whereas in Britain we have always assumed that we could make it up as we went along - the equivalent of trying to build a plane in flight.
Second, policy-makers are aware that other countries have attempted to change a wide range of things at the same time, involving curriculum, class organisation, educational goals, school organisation and pupil experience, generating considerable overload. They intend to phase reform and concentrate on root changes rather than branch or peripheral ones.
The Pacific Rim countries are aware of the need for clarity in what they are attempting to do. Vague British concepts such as "the whole child" will have little place in their vocabulary.
They will ensure that the changes that they want will be generated by all teachers being given the technology that is necessary, in terms of appropriate teaching behaviours and understandings. As befits a country in which uttering the phrase "teaching is an art not a science" generates embarrassed concern for the mental health of the speaker, initial teacher education and in-service education will reflect the new methodologies that teachers will be expected to use. The reformers will insist that changes in individual classrooms are faithful to national designs, viewing a strong technology of instruction -whether progressive or traditional - as the friend of the disadvantaged, the slow learning and the needy.
What the Pacific Rim is particularly interested in is the power of collaborative group work to deliver vastly improved traditional outcomes, plus some new ones. They know the American research literature and the huge learning gains that properly implemented group work can bring - especially if the group has responsibility for the task, if individuals have additional individual tasks and if material is properly differentiated to ensure it is appropriate. My prediction is that Taiwanese classrooms will erode the proportion of whole-class interactive teaching from its present 90 per cent or so at primary school to perhaps 70 per cent, with group work taking up 20 per cent and individual work continuing at the present 10 per cent of total time.
Their primary classroom of the future may, therefore, possess little in common with a progressive British primary class. Indeed, one of the hardest tasks in any discussion with Pacific Rim educators is getting them to see how the British experience whereby primary children spend 70 per cent of their time working on their own, with mostly administrative rather than higher level interactions with their teacher, is actually legal, let alone encouraged and called progressive. The Pacific Rim will choose to pull the lever of the group, a marked contrast to our British inability to conceptualise and implement group-based learning, which remains simply a progressive sound bite.
Two things seem to be important. First, Pacific Rim societies are seeking a new blend. It would be foolish to return to their basics just at the time that they themselves are aware of the need to change. As they search for a blend of traditional and innovative practices, our own British search must likewise involve a desire to keep what we do well, in addition to recognising areas where we have much to learn. Indeed, it is possible that while our investigative methods may be inappropriate with some subject areas, they explain our superiority over much of the rest of the world in science. For us, as well as Taiwan and the others, the answer is a blend, not a slavish cult worship, of what others do.
The importance of Pacific Rim societies like Taiwan is likely to lie in the fact that they have an agreed technology of practice as well as in the precise nature of what that technology is. In Taiwan, it would be inconceivable that their groups of students, who are among their brightest in terms of achievement, would be encouraged to discover their own homemade technologies of teaching. In Western countries it has been usual for groups of student teachers, who are often not the most able of their generation, to do precisely that, and to be encouraged to view themselves as philosophers engaged in a constant debate and discussion on the nature of the goals of education.
In Taiwan, teachers are proud to be applied technologists, not philosophers. Whatever the precise blend of practice they choose, they will deliver the blend in practice. In this respect, it is still necessary for West to look East as the East looks West.
David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne