Field Notes on the Chinese Education System

[by Roger Loxley]

I read an interesting article in the paper this weekend. It was about some teachers from Shanghai who had come to England to shows us how they teach maths. It’s all on the back of the current government’s focus on pushing the UK up the PISA tables.

The article discussed the teaching style of the Chinese teachers, or one in particular, and the difference between the way they (she) taught and the way our teachers teach. Was it surprising? No, not really. I was lucky to be able to go to China in 2012 and to spend four days in a Chinese school observing their practices and I wrote a journal whilst there. The article prompted me to review my journal and reflect on my thoughts.

So, for what it’s worth, here they are.

China’s education system is in a state of flux. This reflects the change that China as a country is going through, both economically and socially.

Chinese schools mostly educate through instruction. The basis of this is, I think, reforms that were put in place in the early years of the 20th century that were heavily influenced by western education styles of the time.   Also, because the population is so vast and the number of teachers relatively small, instruction is the method that they are forced to use.

Instruction works, and when supported by intensive practice it works very well in driving recall and performance. I know that 6 times 6 is 36 because I rote-learned it back when I was 7, 8, 10, whenever; I can’t remember how old, but the instruction and practice (including chanting, and I can still hear and feel the rhythm of it) worked.

china maths

The article in the paper emphasised the nature of the instruction used by the teacher. What it didn’t talk about was how the Chinese system relies on practice to secure that understanding. The school we visited in 2012 had an astonishing regime for the students. Lessons start at 7.40am and finish at 5pm with a break for lunch and a nap. Then the students go into study rooms to practice until 9.30pm. Then it all starts again the following day, six days a week. No wonder they are good at stuff that relies on recall and rote learning.

Why do they put up with it? Well, I believe that China is a developing economy. It’s not developed yet, it might be the second biggest in the world but most of that is simply down to population. Any developing economy values education as a way out of poverty. If education is your only chance of prosperity then you will work at it seven days a week. No wonder Chinese students are prepared to work until 9.30pm on academic study – there’s little sport, art, drama after school as a result. Success in the exams is everything if you want to get to a good university, secure a decent job and be able to support your family. This drive for success is one of the reasons they can work in classes of 60. If everyone needs to learn then there’s no disruption. Rote learning, everyone on the same page, detailed instruction, all this is entirely feasible in a class of 60. There’s no chance of discussion or group work in such classes. Then you go away and practice and practice and practice.

But China is changing. Education is no longer the only way out. There’s a rising middle class of entrepreneurs who have not been to university and that’s changing attitudes to education.

This is one reason why the Chinese send their teachers to the west to learn how to conduct discussions, operate with groups and become more western in their outlook. It’s why they are building schools that are sponsored or run under western influence. It’s why their students want to come to the west to do A levels and access western universities.

So, what can we learn from Chinese teachers from Shanghai? That instruction works? Of course we know instruction works. And when supported by practice it’s highly effective. But it’s just one tool in the teacher’s toolkit. We all need to instruct. But not all the time. Instruct where necessary to impart key information. Ensure students practice. But then go beyond that and make sure they get to understand the ideas, have a chance to explain that to someone else, make connections between it and another aspect, be creative in using the information and applying it to different situations, take it apart and put it back together again to make something new. That’s what education in the west does best.

When I took our visiting Chinese students to Beamish Museum we went into the Victorian classroom and had a little talk by the curator there. He told the students that in Victorian times they would have sat in that one room with all the other children. Some 40-50 in total. They would have had to chant repetitive rhymes: rote learning names, numbers, countries and rivers: practice and practice. From dawn until dusk. On the way out the Chinese students all agreed: it’s just like rural China today.

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