Is there a place for China's wise laoshi?

When Confucian and Socratic traditions are seemingly at odds, can Western systems learn from Asian methods - and vice versa?

Confucian thinking about teaching and learning is centuries old but still much discussed today. Indeed, commentators have given aspects of this heritage at least some of the credit for the high performance of young people in places such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea in recent rounds of international educational tests.

Confucianism values learning, cultivates a model of receiving and polishing knowledge and praises hard work and perseverance, particularly by those who find subjects difficult. "By not giving up, you can change an iron bar into a needle," said educators in China's Han dynasty (206BC to AD220), and this philosophy appears to be applied with some success to children who struggle initially with subjects such as mathematics and foreign languages.

Central to the tradition is the figure of the teacher - the laoshi - who is revered as a source of wisdom and knowledge, not only about the subject being taught but also about life. The prefix lao means "old", which is a reason for respect.

In contrast, the West offers the equally venerable Socratic tradition, in which the teacher is seen as a facilitator, bringing knowledge out of students by asking questions. In the words of 19th-century Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Socrates "often insisted that he really knew nothing, but his questioning skills allowed others to learn by self-generated understanding".

There may have been a level of irony in the Greek philosopher's reported self-deprecation - it takes a highly skilled facilitative teacher to ask the right questions - but the Socratic tradition undoubtedly encourages learners to ask questions from the outset. Knowledge is seen as being within the learner rather than passed on by the wise teacher.

The contrasts between these traditions raise important questions for policymakers and teachers who are keen to improve their educational outcomes, particularly Western governments that are envious of the educational successes of Shanghai and Singapore. What can we learn from each other? Should the West copy Asian teaching practices despite not sharing the traditional concept of the laoshi? And are research findings on what works best in Western schools directly applicable in Asia?

Recently, Cambridge International Examinations ran a seminar in Shanghai entitled "What does research suggest are the most powerful influences on student learning and what does this mean in Asia?" More than 100 delegates attended: most came from China but we also welcomed visitors from Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, India and Pakistan, among others. Many more joined in online and the debate continues on professional network LinkedIn.

The main presentation was about the work of John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning (2009), which brings together the findings of more than 800 meta-analyses of reports from thousands of research projects aiming to quantify the effect of particular factors or changes on student achievement. Hattie sought to identify factors that make a visible difference beyond the "hinge point" that distinguishes the really effective activities from those have small effects, as almost all educational interventions do.

He concludes that there is little research evidence to suggest that changes to the structures of schools and education systems make much difference. Factors such as class size, streaming or non-streaming and single-sex education versus co-education were found to have little impact, taken in isolation. The visible differences were made by students and teachers, notably students' expectations of their own learning, the quality of teaching and the commitment of teachers.

Almost all 800-plus pieces of meta-analysis cited by Hattie are in English and the majority of the research was carried out in the US. At the seminar, we considered the relevance of Hattie's findings to Asia. Some of the interventions that he evaluated - including some found to be comparatively ineffective - were described as "hot topics" in China. These factors included homework, school choice, class size and summer camps.

An even hotter topic in many Asian countries is examinations, which were first introduced in China more than 2,000 years ago. There was some debate about the relevance, in that context, of research findings on the limiting effect of too much "teaching to the test" in the US.

Translating ideas

There is no doubt that children across the world share many characteristics and can surprise us by how quickly they can pick up and use good ideas from other cultures. We went away from the discussion keen to find further research that could add Asian experience to the vast database developed by Hattie. Some seminar attendees suspected that the Western research did not pick up some of the strengths of the Confucian tradition.

The translators at the seminar said that there was no obvious way of translating the title of Hattie's book, Visible Learning, into Chinese. Assuming that visible learning occurs when "teachers see learning through the eyes of the student and students see themselves as their own teachers", this raises certain questions. Is this a Socratic approach rather than a Confucian one? Does it denigrate the role of the wise laoshi? If so, is that a good or a bad thing? Can different teaching approaches have different effects in different cultures? Or is effective teaching the same the world over?

Isabel Nisbet is senior education adviser (Asia Pacific region) at the University of Cambridge's Cambridge International Examinations. She was previously chief executive of England's exams regulator Ofqual.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you