Lessons from Shanghai


SecEd columnist Phil Parker is currently working with Chinese schools who are keen to move from rote-learning to a skills-led approach. He discusses what he found on a recent visit to a Shanghai school.

They are called “laoshi” – literally “master” – but the word actually means “teacher”.

To be a teacher in China is a contradiction in terms of status. Teachers are badly paid. Many tutor students privately to offset their meagre earnings in the day job. Yet their status in society is lofty; their word is lore.

This applies to parents equally as much as to students; it is a status handed from one generation to another, a never-questioned baton.

In a way, that is part of their problem in China and it is why I was invited to go there in the first place. 

China’s leaders in education are eager to learn from Britain. You might have heard on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show (October 14) that education is the single largest growth area in commercial business with Britain. Yet George Osborne and Boris Johnson did not mention it once while they were out there on their recent trade mission!

China’s problem is that lack of questioning: a cultural characteristic in some respects. We know in Britain that the best learning is generated by questioning, investigation and curiosity. China’s learning has always operated by rote, so how do you move from one form to another? The answer lies in encouraging teachers to relinquish some of the control and for students to be less passive.

Part of the barrier lies in the teacher’s role as “laoshi”. If you compare the recent national curriculum established by the Chinese government you will find little difference to the UK’s. Many schools across the country understand the need to change but struggle to understand how. Introducing change into this nation is the epitome of the supertanker analogy: scale is the problem.

Britain is undergoing considerable change under our current education secretary Michael Gove. His influence stretches over a total of eight million pupils. In China there are 200 million, a scale factor of 25. There is a total of just over 24,000 schools in Britain. This number hardly compares to eastern China. In Shanghai, where I am working, there are more than 4,000 schools.

Now imagine how you address CPD for that degree of change-management! It is done on a scale that defies belief. In the past staff training sessions took place in sports stadiums, filled with 50,000 teachers – so that each teacher could understand what was required of them as they watched a model lesson, displayed on large screens around the stadium. It was intended for it to be copied by them, and copied precisely.

When a teacher was observed they would teach one of these model lessons. The individuality and a teacher’s professional judgement had no role in this process. You did what you were shown.

The same is still true for students. Learning is about the passive acceptance of information which will be absorbed so it can be presented in the “Gaokao”, the equivalent of our end of key stage 4 exams. Schools are held accountable by this measure, just as we are in Britain. Ambitious parents analyse school and student performance to a high degree.

It is easy to understand why PISA performance is achieved so successfully by China. I visited the top performing school in the region and witnessed a profoundly different culture.

The school was like a five star hotel. Well-appointed and resourced amid beautifully kept gardens. Large too. Their canteen made the sports hall in my school look small. Students were dressed in sport-style, but smart, school uniform. They moved around the school with some noise and good-natured fun and their relationships with teachers were relaxed and informal. It was a friendly place.

I watched an English lesson with 14 and 15-year-olds, year 10 equivalent. Ours had been a planned visit but, as also happens in schools here, an administration error meant that a third of the class didn’t turn up because they were doing a test in another subject and the teacher hadn’t been told (oh, so like home!).

This didn’t faze her. Despite having English visitors she launched into her lesson, clearly improvising, something I respected her for immensely (given what I’ve said earlier).

It was a very traditional lesson, the focus was on the teacher who asked questions to which pupils responded. Their standard of English was impressive. However, what was taught was accepted without enquiry or challenge.

Behaviour was impeccable but it was a result of passivity, students’ priorities were entirely focused on inculcation. In this lesson about non-verbal communication students learned that friendly and open Chinese people required half a metre of personal space. Middle Eastern cultures needed a metre. The aloof British demanded three metres.

Demonstrations took place to illustrate this and included the awkwardness Brits displayed when that three-metre circle was invaded. It was information reinforced in a book which appeared in audio form on the interactive whiteboard too.

Afterwards, having shared a meal with the principal and his middle and senior leaders, I ran a training session. I had made the mistake of assuming staff were content with this traditional “laoshi” approach. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

They were a wonderful group of people, full of enthusiasm, despite having worked all day and then having my training session that would last until 7pm. They were eager to learn how to work – and think – differently. They don’t want their students to be passive, to be spoon-fed.

This is where similarities appear. In China, teachers describe their role in metaphor, as a candle whose light illuminates the learning process, to burn-out eventually so the candle is a melted pool of wax. Many teachers in this country may be nodding with understanding, teachers who slavishly work to raise students’ achievement too.

Another metaphor is finding purchase and it got smiles and kindly nods when I started with it. Teachers are flowers, students are bees that visit the flower to obtain the pollen that sustains them in life. It is the bee that needs to do the work.

Okay, so perhaps British teachers aren’t into metaphor in the same way as their Chinese counterparts, but the message remains the same. None of us want our pupils to be passive passengers on this learning journey.

China wants to pursue the use of 21st century learning skills to drive innovation. They want students to develop creativity, enterprise, independence and teamwork and realise that if these skills are to appear in the workforce, they need to be developed early in life. Students must develop this mind-set early on so it becomes an automatic means of thinking, learning and working. It requires teachers to operate differently too.

It is not going to happen over night. This is a supertanker of an education system. However their compass has a new heading now. As with everything China does, it will be given total commitment and driven hard to achieve this goal. 

I shall be back in China when this article is published, working with more staff and schools. What I find reassuring is, despite this being such a different culture to Britain’s, one thing remains exactly the same. Teachers dedicate their efforts to find the best ways to help their students achieve, and they embrace change when they see how it will benefit everyone in society in the long term.

  • Phil Parker, an ex-senior leader of a successful school, is a director of Student Coaching Ltd, which works with schools eager to develop rounded and successful young people by transforming the way people learn. Visit www.studentcoaching.co.uk



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