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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Digital literacy

About 20 years ago at an education conference one of the speakers said: “To be literate is to fully inhabit a culture”. At first it felt a little affected or a bit too “luvvie” for my liking. Over time however I have repented. I find it useful rather than struggling with new words like “learnacy”.

The learning needed in an agrarian society is very different from that needed in a modern pervasive technology world, and with it our notion of what it means to be educated changes. With technology advancing on many fronts, constructing a curriculum which embraces technology for learning outcomes rather than for its own sake is a tricky business.

The debates over electronic calculators and arithmetic in schools illustrates how the developments challenge teachers and curriculum setters. Banning calculators doesn’t help, but because it’s easy to “do” arithmetic on a calculator doesn’t mean it’s any easier to understand or learn arithmetic. My stance has always been that it is best to accept the reality of technology advances and to understand the upsides and downsides dispassionately.

With the new ICT curriculum in schools, it is time for a wider think about the world we are preparing our children for and to understand what it means to be “digitally literate”. For me, it’s far more than a narrow focus on coding skills.

All technologies are defined as much by their limits as they are by their capabilities. It can be easy to be seduced by the shiny new toys and lose sight of the bigger picture. Let’s take language learning as one example.

I recently heard a claim re-iterated that I’ve heard for many years: “Advances in real-time language software will remove the need for children to learn foreign languages”.

I have only one problem with that sentence. It’s complete nonsense. If some policy wonk in an era of tight budgets believes this idea, then it could be dangerous. There were recent reports that we don’t have enough diplomats with Russian language to deal with Putin. Should we stop worrying because in 10 years’ time they won’t need to?

Now the advances in language software in the last few years have been impressive, after many years of slow progress. However, there are still important limits and we need to understand them if we are to use these advances to enrich language learning and to avoid dumbing down the curriculum.

Let me illustrate some of the limits which I believe are important in thinking about why and how children should learn foreign languages.

First, language evolves over time.

Take the King James Bible example of “Suffer the little children to come unto me”. If you Google it alongside the religious references it appears in articles about paedophile priests where it is clear that contemporary usage of suffer is meant, not the archaic meaning of permit or allow.

A 20th Century example illustrates a different issue. The standard English translation from the original German aria “Girls were made to love and kiss” from Lehar’s 1925 operetta Paganini explains the tenor’s belief in the title with the following line: “the good Lord made me gay”. To modern ears that’s odd. When the translation was done in the 1930s, I have been assured that it was a good translation of the German meaning.

The choice of words partly is determined by the rhyme way/gay. Some recent singers have replaced this rhyme with law/flaw. While that makes more sense with modern use of the word gay, it is further away from the literal meaning. The German language and the English language have and will continue to evolve in different ways.

Second, language is more than words or sentences.

Some things cannot be translated without significant loss of meaning. Translate into French: “Now is the discount of our winter tents”. Humour, double-entendre and cultural references will remain resistant to language software for some considerable time.

Third, meaning changes in context.

It is important in translating “every couple has its moment in a field” to know if this is Physics or alfresco delights being written about.

Now, in a world where many documents can be translated automatically to a “good” standard, this surely does provide opportunities to engage children in language learning more creatively. However, if homework can be translated into French by Google translate without passing between the ears of the student, I would argue that it is the homework and curriculum that is the problem, not the student.

So, children have no need to learn foreign languages? Well, all they will miss is music, poetry, theatre, humour, culture, history just to name a few fields. Not much to give up?

Adapting a well-known line: “Who knows English, who only English knows”. Now translate that into Greek!

By Chris Yapp (a NET leading Thinker)