I've seen the answer to the trad vs prog debate

One international school leader explains how the two teaching approaches are being combined successfully in China

David Mansfield

Pedagogy: I've found the answer to the trad vs prog debate in international schools in China, says this leader

It was a familiar conversation.

I had just done a paired observation with an expat senior leader. We had watched an experienced Chinese maths teacher at my school in Shanghai. After eight years of observations as a head in China, what we had seen was typical, as was the Western response.

The lesson was teacher-led, not much interaction, and though a lot of work was done, the students were not always fully engaged. The pace was quick, the explanations sometimes a bit cursory, but the content was rich and supported by a clearly written textbook. There was a short test at the beginning, and a good dose of homework set at the end.

My colleague was rueful. She wanted more student interaction and a clearer focus on problem-solving. Not unreasonable requests. Fairly basic for a UK classroom.

However, what the lesson needed was not a simple replacement of its Chinese foundations, but an integration of soft skills and application of knowledge that good Western pedagogy can offer.

Pedagogy: The trad vs prog battle in education

This process of seeking to transition teaching from a traditional Chinese base to incorporating international pedagogy is endemic among the new bilinguals in China.

More universally, it symbolises the philosophical clash that has set progressive, child-centred proponents against traditionalists for the past 100 years.

But the fact is that the Chinese approach has impact. The outcomes in the latest 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) global educational performance data are difficult to refute. In maths, the top seven performing countries are all in Asia, as are seven out of the top 10 in science, and the top four in reading. Top of the tree in all three categories is China.

Trends we can't ignore 

Notwithstanding reservations about the methodology undergirding these outcomes, the trend is at least noteworthy. All the Asian jurisdictions promote pedagogies founded on Confucianism where Direct Instruction, rote learning and regular testing are the order of the day.   

Even in the UK, Chinese achievement is evident. In December 2020, the government reported on GCSE English and maths that, "pupils from the Chinese ethnic group were most likely to get a strong pass (76.3 per cent)".

Why Chinese students perform better in UK schools than other ethnic groups is clearly in part because of cultural norms and family support.

But be under no illusion, the support granted at home and through any tutors who may be employed is very much of the traditional method.


The Chinese default pedagogy is ancient, and avowedly knowledge-based. The GaoKao, the Chinese university entrance examination, is essentially a memory test based on the old civil service exam system that required rote learning and fast recall.  

Modern synoptic meta-studies and neuroscience consistently affirm that the pedagogy accompanying the Confucian tradition works. Its emphasis on spaced repetition and enhanced retrieval practice through regular testing embeds knowledge into the long-term memory.

In the schools where I have worked, it was interesting to note the emphasis on foundational knowledge in the Chinese classroom.

There was a ubiquitous platform of well-developed knowledge retention and manipulation, often inspired by good teacher-led delivery.

By the end of primary school, a Chinese child will have mastered up to 3,000 characters and have learned multiplication rhymes that embed their times tables in-depth with razor-sharp recall.

More progressive or more child-centred methods, often modelled by Western staff, were introduced but as an accompaniment, not as a replacement for Chinese methods.

Time for a change?

However, at their most basic, these traditional methods, especially in Chinese public schools, are brutal. The emergence of the new international bilingual schools is in part inspired by demand from Chinese parents wishing to save their offspring from the Gaokao regime.

Many students lock themselves away for months for up to 18 hours a day of study. Some are even sent away to Gaokao preparatory schools, run on military academy-style principles.

The sacrifices and mental health risks associated with gaining the necessary mark to achieve entry into a top Chinese university are not acceptable to a growing number of Chinese parents.         

Yet Chinese parents do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The most popular international schools will offer an holistic education that develops soft skills, but there is still an insistence on rigour.

Woe betide any new school that verges too much on child-centredness and fails to push students’ learning. The demand is for the development of independent learners with a stony expectation of achieving high standards.

Best of both worlds

The practice of offering a Western education in the Chinese market shows how traditional and progressive can mix. It is clear that Chinese students benefit hugely from skills devolved from methodologies that encourage collaboration and communication; for example, group work and project-based learning.

They revel in Socratic questioning, and activities accessing the higher reaches of Bloom’s taxonomy advance their creativity and critical thinking.

The debate on what pedagogy works best will no doubt continue, but the abiding lesson for me is that more progressive approaches work because the Chinese students already have a firm grasp of foundational knowledge derived from well-planned, more traditional methods, especially the routinisation of number and language work.

David Mansfield is a former headmaster of Dulwich College Beijing, and former executive head of YK Pao School. He is currently dean of Buckingham International School of Education

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