So what did we make of “Chinese School”? – shown last night on BBC 2.
In the first place, it wasn’t as terrible as it could have been.
* The five Chinese teachers who’d been flown in from Shanghai for this “experiment” were very pleasant and personable, though somewhat bemused by the character of the pupils they were trying to teach in traditional Chinese (and British) fashion – teachers facing rows of pupils from in front of a large wall-mounted board on which they wrote the substance of what the pupils were expected to learn.
* The school’s own teachers were very impressive – clearly very able and experienced and not in the least surprised by the problems which arose from such a serious mismatch of expectations.
* The Chinese teachers were expecting to be able to work through the pedagogy that had worked well for them in Shanghai – traditional, formal and didactic; fast-paced, dishing out information and expecting the pupils to take notes and to remember whatever was being given out in the way of facts and explanations.
* The pupils, unaccustomed to working in this way, were for the most part bewildered, uncomprehending and unengaged. Unsurprisingly they became either passive or rebellious, or what some would call “indisciplined”. Many of them couldn’t see any point or purpose to what they were being expected to do, and clearly resented the impersonal and alienating methodology. How could it be otherwise? It was never the intention of these teachers to personalise or differentiate the learning – they were merely “teaching” – i.e. “delivering” a set curriculum that pupils were expected to absorb for future use in tests and exams. It made no difference to them whether or not the pupils were interested in what was being dished out. As one of them said – “In China the students either survive or die”, as if this was a Good Thing.
* Some of the pupils took themselves off to their regular teachers, who were able to do mini-tutorials to make clear whatever it was that the pupils were supposed to understand and absorb. Suitably enlightened by their session with teachers who knew them well, they returned to the class. These pupils are not hard core refuseniks. These are pupils who want to learn but simply cannot cope with the didactic approach of teachers who fail to engage the attention and the interest of the pupils. As one of the British teachers said, “It’s the students’ lesson. It has to be tailored to their needs.” This is clearly an alien concept to the Shanghai teachers.
* Towards the end of this first programme in this new series the pupils were given tasks that were practical and involved them in problem-solving. They were allowed to collaborate and cooperate with their peers. Unsurprisingly, given that this was their normal modus operandi, they became absorbed in the activity and therefore “discipline” was no longer an issue. The voice-over remarked on the level of “engagement” and the positive atmosphere it gave to the classroom. Clearly the key is engagement and not passivity or submission to didacticism.