No international rescue

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Would you want your child taught in a class of 60? If not, OFSTED's Pacific Rim comparisons are not for you, warns Paul Ryan. I read with interest David Reynolds' report for the Office for Standards in Education, Worlds Apart, and his article on whole-class teaching in The TES (June 7). He argues that comparisons of teaching styles and strategies in Pacific Rim countries could provide an impetus for experimentation in this country.

The basis for his argument rests on the conclusions that can be drawn from comparing different cultures, and the validity of interpretations. He identifies factors such as high teacher status, an emphasis on hard work, ambitious parents, a limited number of educational goals, time for teacher collaboration, mixed-ability classes, and regular testing.

Last April a group of academics from the University of Leicester visited the Shaanxi province of China to collect data for a British Council funded research project comparing British and Chinese school and college management. There are six English and six Chinese members of the team. Myself and Chen Xiao Duan, a lecturer at the Shaanxi Teachers' University in Xi'an, are responsible for the primary phase of the project. The research data collected consists of in-depth case studies of schools in England and China.

Many of the factors identified from Reynolds' visit to Taiwan appear similar to those we observed in Chinese primary schools. We found that Chinese schools did have a limited number of specific goals with the emphasis on basic skills at an early age. Teachers had significantly more non-contact time than teachers in England; it was not unusual to find teachers teaching eight to 10 hours a week. All classes contained pupils of mixed ability and there is frequent testing. Children who struggled in the tests were also given extra work to help them catch up. The style of teaching observed was exclusively whole-class with the teacher giving direct instructions. Children used common work books and the teachers taught from common textbooks.

In China, there was an emphasis on hard work, high status for the teachers, high parental ambitions for their children and the support of an extended family. Several of these factors do not apply in most English schools. Partly for these cultural reasons, we lack David Reynolds' confidence in making valid comparisons between the two systems.

For instance, we observed classes of 50 to 60 children and in some cases 70 to 80. We saw schools with few resources and limited physical space. In the mixed-ability classes we observed mixed ages also. At the top end of the primary school it was not unusual to see 14 or 15-year-old children being educated in a class of 10 to 11-year-olds. The economies of scale are larger. The smallest village primary school we saw had 500 pupils and the biggest 2,500. This meant more teachers were employed in the primary schools but also paid a fraction of what English teachers are paid.

What I am questioning is not David Reynolds' claim that we can learn from other countries and other systems, but the basis upon which comparison and learning can take place. If the question of fitness for purpose is addressed then context and culture are essential considerations. Would parents in the UK want their child taught in a class with 50 or 60 other children? Would they want their child to be taught in a regimented way, with little opportunity to discuss, question. challenge and investigate with an emphasis on applying theory to practice? These are all questions related to fitness for purpose.

While visiting Chinese primary schools we were frequently asked why we taught the way we did in England. Our system was explained and we stressed the level of resource put into education in our country. We stressed the social elements of education and the need to encourage creativity, spontaneity, individuality and responsibility in the children taught. We did not want just to fill their heads with facts or knowledge, skills and competencies. The reply was always: if you had to teach 50 or 60 pupils would you teach the same way? The answer was always "no", we would become more directive given larger numbers.

In deciding upon teaching style and strategy we consider how children learn. If we expect our children to question, think for themselves and be creative, a specific style of teaching can foster that. If we wish children to remember facts or knowledge, a different style of teaching may be required.

Primary teaching in the UK is not as uniform as some suggest. Whole-class teaching is frequently used as a strategy in English primary schools. There are many factors influencing teaching style. It is dangerous to make assumptions about the merits of different approaches when comparing disparate international cultures.

* Paul Ryan is lecturer in educational management at the University of Leicester School of Education and a former primary deputy head teacher.

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