On Tuesday 4th August, the BBC launched the 3-part series "Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School". In what the BBC describe as a 'unique experiment', teachers from China go into a Hampshire School for a month and take responsibility for the education of a group of 50 year 9 pupils. The aim is to explore whether educating them the Chinese way will result in higher academic achievement.
As a former teacher and someone who works in schools to help young people become happier and more resilient, I found the programme interesting, but it made me angry. I believe the premise of the experiment to be flawed and that it raises some worrying questions.
What kinds of traits and skills are we trying to develop in our children?
Chinese education teaches children to learn by rote. This is also a prominent feature of the Japanese system; I once spent a summer teaching Japanese teenagers English and when they arrived at our language school, their written English was excellent; they were, however, virtually unable to communicate verbally.
Learning by rote does not foster innovative thinking, questioning the status quo, changing the world. It teaches children to be excellent at passing exams that were designed to test their ability to regurgitate facts. This is not knowledge, or intelligence, or analytical thinking.
The programme title itself asks whether our children are "tough enough". How does the Chinese style of learning test, and more importantly build, "toughness"? Shouldn't education focus more on developing our children's resilience? This brings me to the next question:
Surely there is more to education than Maths, English and Sciences?
In an interview just last month, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan stated that children's emotional wellbeing, resilience and good mental health would be a priority and that we shouldn't "ratchet up the pressure". There seems to be a real juxtaposition between these goals and the constant push to focus increasingly on academic results, particularly in the more 'traditional' academic subjects such as Maths, English and the Sciences.
Education, I believe, has a bigger role to play; to equip our children for life. This means preparing them for work - 'employability' is a big buzzword at the moment - but also preparing them for life's challenges outside of work. The 'Young Minds' charity presents some alarming statistics:
- Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder (and that's just the ones that have been diagnosed)
- One in 12 deliberately harm themselves (and 25,000 of them are hospitalised each year because of this)
- Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression
Additionally, there is growing evidence that we can improve academic achievement in children by specifically focusing on their wellbeing, as well as encouraging them to think for themselves and discuss difficult questions.
Are our children really going to compete against Chinese children for jobs in the future?
During the BBC programme, the Headteacher said that he was interested in running this experiment because today's children will be competing with Chinese children for jobs in the future. Will they, really, though? If China is the place we go to for the cheap mass-manufacture of products, often reproducing inventions created in the UK or elsewhere, are these really the jobs our children will be competing for? Will the Chinese education system produce the pioneering minds of the future in engineering, medical research, music, literature, art?
Is the BBC programme even a valid experiment?
There is also the matter of whether this is actually an experiment or simply a bit of entertainment that pokes fun at both education systems and, particularly, at young people in the UK. Can you really test either education system by taking it out of its own cultural context? Is it really possible to see significant results in just a month?
I suppose it wasn't all bad. The morning exercises seemed to go down a storm with pupils, fostering a sense of belonging and teamwork, as well as getting them energised for the day ahead. Some of the children also seemed to like the science lesson format with clear explanations of scientific formulae and principles. As with most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Our education system is far from perfect and there is a lot to be said for bringing back more respect for teachers, not just for the teachers' sake, but in order to have an undisrupted learning environment that children can flourish in; attempting to emulate the Chinese system, however, is not the answer, in my opinion.
I will be watching the next two episodes (Tuesday 11th & 18th August, BBC2, 9pm, except in Scotland, where it is shown on Thursdays at 8pm) with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation!