'Sunny' climates in the classroom

31st July 2009 at 01:00

It's 26 minutes to six in the morning in Glasgow on June 11 and I wake up when the mobile phone goes off - unusually, because I don't keep the phone in the bedroom and it's normally the alarm that wakes me up.

Once woken, I'm unusually bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It seems I have had a good sleep and my head is buzzing with plans for the days ahead. They promise to be some of the most exciting training sessions I shall have done in my life . if I can put half of what I am planning into practice.

But all is not as it seems. I have woken up just a bit quicker than I thought, because I am not in Glasgow but in Beijing, where it's actually 11.40 in the evening on June 10. Far from having a good night's sleep, I nodded off just three hours before, reading a book to try to stay awake after travelling across the world and getting virtually no sleep for the best part of 24 hours. No wonder my body clock is confused.

I have never worked in mainland China, only Hong Kong. When there, I had focused on assessment for learning and the relatively straightforward topic of questioning.

Here, I had been asked to focus on motivation which would take us more deeply into issues concerning relationships and power in the classroom. How would that play in a country which is embracing capitalism, but remains a dictatorship?

We keep hearing that China is a country where the pace of change is phenomenal, but it wasn't until I visited I understood just what that meant. In my lifetime, an estimated 50-100 million people have died in China due to man-made famine and organised massacre. And the massive portrait of the man responsible still looks out on Tiananmen Square, flanked by a huge parliament building which has no debating chamber.

The education system is increasingly competitive. Nine million young people get the qualifications they need to go to university, but there are only six million places in 1,800 state universities and 1,300 technical colleges. If they get into university, the next step is a job in the civil service, where they are made for life - if they toe the party line. If not, they struggle.

Despite the cultural differences, I need not have worried. The trainers, the headteachers and the teachers I worked with embraced the philosophy that lies behind our work on assessment, learning and motivation.

The highlight of my work in Beijing was when 15 groups of deputes in primary schools explored their motivational autobiography. This activity, designed by Alan McLean, has been well tested with teachers in the UK. Each group produces five words on a flipchart to describe the most important ways to influence other people's self-motivation, based on their own life experiences.

When the flipcharts started coming back in Beijing, the coaches I was working with translated the words into English so I could respond. The similarities with teachers in the UK were stunning. Seven groups out of 15 came up with the word "tolerant". Other top words were "caring", "trusting", "honest". Two groups came up with the word "democratic", which I don't recollect from any group of teachers in the UK.

They did exactly what teachers in Scotland do when asked to reflect on their own motivational autobiography and came up with what McLean calls the "sunny" classroom climate. Here, pupils feel valued and enabled because the teacher connects with them, trusts them to be independent and believes in them as thinkers and learners. - a democratic classroom with the teacher as leader.

The Chinese parliament may not have a debating chamber at the moment. But I think they may be needing one in the not-too-distant future.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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