Friday, May 2, 2014

Chinese teachers for Britain

The British Education Minister recently announced plans to spend £11 million to bring maths teachers over from China to teach in UK schools. She hopes that the Chinese, who will be recruited among English-speaking schoolteachers in Shanghai, will be able to stop the decline in maths skills among British children.

According to the last survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2010, children in the Shanghai region of China ranked highest in the world for maths, and also topped the list for science and reading. British kids have fallen to 28 (out of 65 countries) in maths and 25th in reading, although they do better at science, coming 16th. Five Asian countries or regions (Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan) were in the top ten countries overall, with Finland coming 3rd, Canada 6th and New Zealand 10th.

The plan to employ Chinese teachers has brought a mixed response in Britain. One or two people have questioned whether the teachers will speak good enough English to teach in Britain. But far more people worry that the teachers will not be able to pass on their skills simply because British children are not as well disciplined as Chinese youngsters and will not listen to what their teachers tell them. Many British people feel that the decline in maths and reading skills is a sign of the general decline in the education system because of teachers not being strict enough.

However, some Britons have also questioned whether Chinese education is as good as it is generally considered to be. For one thing, the PISA survey concentrates on Shanghai, not on the whole of China. China’s largest city is its wealthiest too, and its best educated and most competitive. Further, more than half of Shanghai's children come from poorer migrant families and do not participate in the PISA survey. Another criticism is that Chinese education is based on memorisation rather than analysis and creativity, which means that students get good results in exams but may not be so good at solving real problems when they start to work. On the other hand, many people point out that traditional discipline and emphasis on memorisation and exams were exactly the kind of educational methods that used to be employed in British schools – when standards are assumed to have been higher.

The report reminded me of a plan, a few years ago, for American state schools to teach children Mandarin so that the US would be more competitive. Critics of the plan said it would be a waste of money as it was unlikely many Americans would learn to speak Mandarin as well as the Chinese were learning to speak English. They felt it would be better to spend the money on improving maths skills.

Interestingly, at a time when more westerners are conscious of a decline in local school performance in comparison with China, many Chinese are beginning to question their own education system and comparing it unfavourably with western models. In an article in The Observer two months ago ("Chinese schooling wins praise - but not from nation's parents or educators"), one Beijing mother said she was envious of British schoolchildren who were taught to discover things on their own rather than simply be coached for exams. Lao Kaishing, a professor at Beijing Normal University, said Chinese schools had limited resources and put them all into improving children's exam scores rather than into raising their problem-solving abilities or interpersonal skills.

I cannot help wondering whether the way language is taught is the key to the differences between Chinese and British education. UK schoolkids start writing stories and essays when very young. They make a lot of spelling mistakes - and continue to do so even when older - but they become pretty good at expressing themselves. Chinese kids, needing to learn thousands of characters, have less time for free expression because of all the rote learning they have to do.

Anyway, it seems to me that each culture could learn from the other when it comes to education, so interest in how things are done elsewhere can only be a good thing.