Teaching: ‘Are our kids tough enough? Chinese School’ on BBC2/Part Three

Time for the write-up of the final episode of the three-part documentary ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School’ on BBC2. I discussed the first and second parts of the show in recent blog posts (read about here). As I was on holiday when it was on TV for the first time, I’ve watched it on BBC’s iPlayer and tried to backtrack on Twitter to see what conversations were happening at the time. Funnily enough, the final episode of the documentary was in the same week as two other TV shows on the subject of teaching and education including ‘School Swap: The Class Divide’ on ITV where a private school head and some of his students swap places with their inner city comprehensive counterparts as both look at the reality of education behind the headlines, and ‘Educating Cardiff’ on Channel 4 which captures every detail of what life is like for the students and staff at Willows High School. If a dialogue between the three could happen, I think there could be educational progress…or at least critical insight in to different education realities. It is questionable as to whether these TV programmes are “real” though…but that’s another debate.

Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 32

Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 31

As I have said in previous posts, this programme was a must watch for me as it directly feeds into my pre-reading (or watching) for the Masters in Education in Academic Practice that I am completing later this year, with a specific focus on internationalising the curriculum and cultural assimilation for international students, specifically Chinese students.

Entering its final week of teaching by five Chinese teachers to 50 teenagers (13 and 14 year olds) at Bohunt School in Liphook, Hampshire. At first the Chinese way of teaching caused rebellion in the class, now the kids face the stress of the final exams with time running out for the teachers to turn the class around. Will the British or Chinese teaching system come out on top? The teachers finally feel that they are getting the students into shape…the kids are having to get used to the Chinese way. They will be tested, ranked and told whether they have passed or failed. The students discussed the difference in capability with some students being more academic or more sporty and how this could affect your grade. In China, your entire future can rest on how far you can throw a 2kg medicine ball (apparently). In the Chinese way, they are being told their best isn’t good enough…upsetting the students.

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The high pressure teaching has caused chaos and rebellion in the classroom…with the help of the Bohunt teachers, things are beginning to improve. Restless kids are starting to warm to the regime.  The teachers aren’t as much of a push over as they were before and the students are starting to realise this and work harder. They tried to get the students to acknowledge that it is a competitive world out there and time is limited. Teaching is largely about repetition and copying things from the board. The Mandarin teacher seems to expect more from the students…”must try harder”. Revision…writing exercises…homework. Conversely, they referenced the English teaching side of things and how the students are preparing for the exam. The class size is smaller and based on ability with a more personal teaching style. It is important that the students come and enjoy the class. The teacher has a softly-softly approach with a deadly serious approach to exams.

Chinese School has an advantage because of hours at school, nearly twice as much as their English colleagues. This allows teachers to have more time on an individual basis with their students. In a side-line interlude, the teachers stated that you can’t predict some of the things that happen in the classroom in the British system such as Zane leaving One Direction causing teenage girls to enter hysteria….they had never seen this kind of reaction in China.

In the heart of Chinese culture and success is one thing – conformity. The role of the Chinese School is to mould students into model citizens. The next generation of Chinese leaders. Every Chinese child has that desire to do well and serve their country. One student stated in Bohunt you are encouraged to create your own opinion, whereas in Chinese School you are told and dictated to…in the Chinese education system it seems an industrial system, batches of kids that do well and have the same success. It’s not healthy, I don’t want that for myself. One student thought that the Chinese style of teaching would suit a smaller and cleverer class of students. Some students felt like they were missing usual Bohunt life and skipped class to do this. They certainly met the Chinese dedication of working through the night to meet deadlines.

In China individuality is not encouraged…we do it for our country as we need solidarity. One Chinese teacher stated that the Chinese way of teaching to some extent can kill the students imagination, freedom of thinking, critical thinking and creativity. This I COMPLETELY agree with having taught fine art and visual communication in China, and Chinese students in the UK. In China, I would like to see education pay attention to individual personality and the attention of each student. Even the more fun and creative parts of the curriculum have nationalist undertones. Again, I agree with this…but in part needed.

The four weeks of the experiment have been a challenge of endurance, tested by “cultural differences”, and the occasional lost in translation moment. There was time lost to discipline problems and time spent forming new relationships. Did Bohunt triumph over the rebellion? The students were ranked against their peers…some pleased others very annoyed with themselves – “Chinese education isn’t the most encouraging thing, it is about expectation that you can’t always reach’. The teacher responded by saying it is about always trying and trying your best. One student said it is about hard work, getting on with work by yourself, and not chatting.

How did the 50 Chinese School students do against the rest of the year and the British education system? Can they compete? There are philosophies that have clashed over this project. For Maths, Science and Mandarin, Chinese School beat Bohunt School hands down. The unique style of teaching prevailed…in my view, an expected result. However, if it were British School in China, it would be a very, very different story, don’t you? One of the teachers stated, maybe in the tests the students do better as they are pushed more, they are at school longer and encouraged to learn for longer. However, is that a childhood? It does challenge the most able pupils but does it do it in a nurturing way? The way the students respect the teachers needs to be taken on in the UK.

“We need to learn from each other. Learning is not just about the teacher, it is teacher and student – two parts.”

Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 41

 Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 28

Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 39

Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 38 Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 37 Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 36 Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 35 Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 34 Chinese School BBC2 Twitter 33

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An interesting perspective on the programme is provided by Joe Baron – ‘Chinese school triumphs over British system in four weeks’. ..particularly the comments that follow his blog post, especially from a parent of one of the students who participated in the experiment…

‘As a parent with one child who has been through Bohunt and another who is still there (and participated in the Chinese school experiment – not that she featured much as she behaved!) I know how flawed this ‘experiment’ was and how manipulative the BBC have been. But then again, I was naive enough to believe the BBC would produce an honest comparison rather than this ‘show’ so why shouldn’t you believe that the result was accurate!…I agree with your comment that the Chinese pupils work harder, longer hours and this leads to better results – and this is why we put our daughter forward to be involved in the ‘experiment’ – because we believed it was a great learning opportunity. However, I’m also glad you mention the indiscipline shown in the class. When the BBC talked to parents about Chinese School they emphasised that it was SCHOOL not CLASS.’

Also see the letter below, sent by one of the teachers to parents. All this background and back-chat information helps to understand the actually “reality” to the experiment, not the “reality” shown to us on a glowing screen. To cultural assimilation and internationalising education…and trying to make this happen. I’ll keep you posted on my continuing research into this area…

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  1. Wow, I found the letter from the teacher to the parents really interesting! Where did you find it? It’s interesting that what Zou mentions about pupils being encouraged to take more responsibility outside the classroom wasn’t really mentioned or given much importance during the actual broadcast.
    I’d be really interested to read about your teaching experiences in China, have you written about that at all? I also loved the question you raised about the blurred lines between solidarity, patriotism and conformity – it would be so interesting to see this experiment tried with schooling systems from other countries to investigate this a bit further.
    I’m glad someone else found this show blog-worthy too, I was beginning to think I was the only person who actually enjoyed it!

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