Good ideas can wither in another culture

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Recent years have seen the British education system increasingly compared with those of other countries in general and of the Pacific Rim in particular. Such comparisons, of course, beg many fundamental questions, particularly the extent to which the apparent superiority of countries from the Pacific Rim in the international surveys of achievement is due to the effects of their distinctive cultures or of their different educational philosophies and structures.

Further difficult issues include the extent to which the educational factors - such as whole-class interactive teaching - are likely to prove effective outside the countries that have customarily made use of them.

Nevertheless, the increased internationalisation of educational debate has an enormous potential for good.

Looking at other countries can reveal policies that are unknown in one's own country, such as the frequent testing, commitment to all children's learning and a universally inculcated "technology" of teaching that characterise the countries of the Pacific Rim. By contrast, Anglo-Saxon traditions of concern with children's creativity, a broad range of educational outcomes and the generation of "learning how to learn" skills, have potentially much to teach those countries of the Pacific Rim, that have customarily concentrated upon conventionally defined outcomes.

The first interactions between Britain and the Pacific Rim have been overwhelmingly one-sided, involving a somewhat perplexed yet interested British audience being exposed to philosophies and practices that are foreign to them. Of particular interest have been:

- whole-class interactive teaching, where the teacher is the centre of the class and instructs the class for about 90 per cent of the lesson time,while at the same time involving the pupils as a group and as individuals by letting them ask questions, work on the blackboard, peer tutor each other and shout out the answers to questions in unison;

- the educational philosophy that all children can learn - the living embodiment of the effective schools movement in evidence not just at the level of individual schools but whole societies;

- the unwillingness to tolerate failure, and the concern to be "failure-free", which leads to both a "right first time" mentality and to the systematic attempts to prevent a trailing edge of pupils from falling behind their peers, by testing, re-teaching as necessary and giving extra work;

- the desire to ensure that teachers are resourced with the world's great knowledge bases in the areas of teaching and learning, so that there will both be foundations for professional practice to build on, and that there will be no leftover poor teachers that might lead to low-achieving pupils.

At the same time that British educationists have been interested in the Pacific Rim, the societies there have become interested in what there is to learn from the western traditions that western societies seem so keen to change. The reduction in the volume of homework in Korea, the introduction of open-plan schooling and associated team-teaching in Japan and the recent international conference on open education in Taiwan are all symptoms of a recognition that East must learn from West. Part of the reason for this is simply economic - an information-age economy necessitates a workforce with skills in the accessing of new information rather than the simple repetition of the old.

Increasingly "lateral" or "empowered" work organisations also necessitate a range of group-related skills and social competences from their employees that have not been the concern of predominantly academically orientated schools.

A world in which existing knowledge in many fields is simply redundant in a decade necessitates an emphasis upon the child's capacity to generate new knowledge rather than passively recycle existing knowledge.

Part of the reason for looking westwards is also social.

As the closed and traditional societies of the Pacific Rim open themselves to new influences and as varieties of knowledge and varieties of expression become increasingly varied, there are clear parallels with the "opening" of education by the embracing of new bodies of knowledge and new goals.

We now exist, then, in a second phase of East-West interaction, in which both groups of countries are attempting to generate a "blend" of their traditional practice with that from abroad. In Britain, there are the projects such as that in Barking and Dagenham, east London, that are explicitly aimed at transplanting overseas practice into British classrooms. There is also the national move towards more whole-clas s interactive teaching and targets for key stage 2 that represent a British adoption of the Pacific Rim philosophy that all children must be got over educational hurdles and acquire basic skills.

In Pacific Rim societies, there are experimental "open schools"' and curriculum reforms to generate "new" outcomes. What is interesting for both sets of societies - West and East - is the extent to which any blend of practice may be achievable without major cultural change in the wider society.

For example, attempting to introduce the practices associated with "zero tolerance of failure" in Britain may be difficult, given that the concept in the Pacific Rim exists within cultures where the "little things" and enormous attention to detail are fundamental.

The whole notion that "all children can learn" which the present Government is attempting to put into practice may be difficult to transmit outside the Pacific Rim societies in which children's backgrounds outside school are not allowed to affect their educational prospects.

Likewise, attempts to open schools to new knowledge and new goals in Pacific Rim countries may have little effect if society at large continues to value, and give high status, to "traditional" forms of learning.

For a variety of reasons, it seems that the story of what happened when the educational practices and societies of the East met those of the West is only beginning.

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Newcastle- upon-Tyne

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