Shanghai versus England

We do so love the adversarial debate in our country. We routinely position polar opposite ideas and debate them in order to determine which is right. Of course whenever we follow this process the result is bigoted people on both sides trying to thrust their views forward and positions harden rather than consensus being achieved.

The latest, highlighted in a BBC TV series, is the debate about whether Shanghai teaching is better than English teaching. Shanghai, riding high on the OECD tables, and England languishing at 20th. Shanghai reportedly all rote learning and discipline, and England characterised by harassed staff managing increasingly unmotivated children. What a stereotype this is!

I have spent a large amount of time in the last eight years working internationally and as part of that have advised the countries who are certainly performing highly in OECD terms. So I think I know something about this particular matter.

Have no doubt, Asia including China is indeed the ‘Asian Tiger’. It pulsates with optimism and evidence of rapid progress is visible at every turn. Education merely reflects this wider ambition. The Hong Kong Education Bureau staff smiled when I explained that the reason I asked about the demographic profile of the schools I visited was that in my country the family into which you are born is a strong predictor of how well you will do in education. ‘Not so in ours’, they replied. Each generation is a fresh start and all students have the chance to exceed the achievements of their parents. And they mean it! Their overall expectations are high and they deliver.

Of course they do not deliver using the same methodologies as we do. If you know anything about learning Mandarin you will know that traditionally it is acquired through memorisation, with students learning new sets of symbols each day and practising them by rote. So the rest of their education system mirrors this kind of approach. That is not to say that it lacks vision.

The Confucius education tradition has a proud history and dictates that education should encourage the student to think about how he should live his life and interact with others, and the forms of society and government in which he should participate. It’s not just learning facts but it does place the onus on the student to make the most of what they are offered. This is where the idea that the Chinese value hard work comes from. They do, but so does Singapore and Hong Kong, etc. They believe that hard work rather than background – or even innate ability – is the key to success and that anyone who wants it can achieve it.

So why are they seeking advice from English educationalists? Well the answer is that we have our own proud tradition. At its best our education system develops individuals who can think for themselves. They are encouraged to question and debate ideas and the result, when done well, is that we produce students who can innovate and problem solve as well as

having strong subject knowledge and expertise. Note our very successful creative industries and our record for innovation in all fields as opposed to just routine production.

Yet, both we and Shanghai have our problems. In Asia the challenge is to find an educational style that builds on their success but at the same time encourages the problem solving and innovative thinking that prepares people for leadership in a complex world. In our case our education tradition seems to create a mixture of excellence and mediocrity as it is much more teacher and school dependent. It’s harder to manage students who think for themselves and question and this has to be done in an environment of mutual respect.

Maybe what we should be taking from Asia is their belief in the power of hard work and their belief in students’ ability to succeed. Plus, helping students to understand that they need to take some ownership for their own progress.

One thing is for sure: grafting an educational approach from another educational tradition onto our education system is unlikely to lead to success. We can learn much from other countries and adopt some of their ideas. But wholesale transfer never works – education is context related and reflects a country’s society and ambitions.

Professor Deborah Eyre

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