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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

• Tom Kilcourse


A BBC television programme in which a group of Chinese teachers attempted to cope with a class of English teenagers proved to be an eye-opener in more ways than one. In a sense, the producers missed a point. They set up a ‘Chinese’ school, complete with long hours, exaggerated bows from students when the teacher entered the room, etc. This unnecessary elaboration actually blurred some key distinctions between the Chinese and British approach to teaching. Exact replication of the Chinese school-day, with its long hours, odd meal-times and so on, was superfluous to our understanding. More pertinent, in my view, was the difference in teacher-pupil relationships between the two systems.

We saw here in microcosm the clash of two different philosophies, the Anglo-American individualism of the pupils against the Confucian tradition in which the teachers were raised. Chinese teachers are authority figures who expect, and receive in China, the respect of their pupils. In this English school they were faced with the egotistical individualism of indulged teenagers. So, when a female teacher chided one girl for her rude behaviour, we were treated to the sight of a vacuous thirteen year-old asking, open mouthed, ‘Who does she think she is?’ Throughout the broadcast we witnessed pupils talking to each other, oblivious to the teacher’s efforts to be heard.

A clue to how these young people came to be so self-indulgent was revealed by the behaviour of the English headmaster and some of his staff. At one point, the head teacher entered a classroom during a lesson, watched for a few minutes as a Chinese teacher gave a lesson from the front of the class, before turning away with a shake of the head. He clearly saw the ‘teaching from the front approach’ as dated and ineffectual. I found that gesture most telling because the Chinese teacher’s approach was reminiscent of my own childhood education in the nineteen-fifties, so it was ‘dated’, in that sense, but how did it become ineffective?

I believe the answer lies in a philosophical shift that took place in British teacher training in the nineteen-sixties when new ‘learning theories’ were swallowed whole by teacher training colleges. This led to changes in technique that aimed to ‘engage’ pupils’ interest to motivate them to learn, even to make learning ‘fun’. The notion of teachers as authority figures became taboo, so that discipline was replaced by a certain togetherness. The teaching profession gradually came to reject the idea that school was meant to prepare people for the workplace. Rather, the teacher’s role was to develop youngsters into rounded, self-reliant individuals.

Today, whereas English teachers attempt to bring everyone in the class forward, the Chinese approach appears to be to race ahead, leaving the slower thinkers to struggle. The latter was criticised during the programme by an English teacher who remarked on the unfairness to the slower children. He did not suggest the solution, equally dated, of streaming classes according to learning ability. Streaming, which worked well enough in my youth is anathema of course in our egalitarian society, with the result that brighter children are sometimes bored stiff as a teacher repeats or dumbs-down a lesson for the benefit of laggards.

As a result of the philosophical shift in British schools much of our teaching was more concerned with preventing failure, at least overtly, than with promoting excellence. Ironically in a society dependent on competition, competitiveness was abandoned in the classroom, and became disapproved of more widely. I well recall the movement in some quarters to develop non-competitive sports and games.

Sadly, in my view, the philosophical rejection of schooling in preparation for work has had considerable success, resulting in many youngsters being almost unemployable. I recall the time during the nineteen-eighties when I was tasked with recruiting a number of trainee managers from a pool of applicants possessing A-levels. I was forced to adjust the management training programme to include remedial lessons in mathematics and English language. Some years later, in the nineties, I did some external lecturing on the Masters programme at a British university. I recall a conversation with some members of the permanent staff who showed me ‘essays’ submitted by their students. Some covered no more than a half sheet of A4 paper and would have barely qualified as a decent letter to mum.

Pessimism concerning the quality of English education is justified by more than such anecdotal evidence of decline. International comparisons are depressing. If we look at tables produced by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) produced by the OECD the decline becomes evident. The figures are for 15 year old students. In the year 2000 the UK ranked 9th in mathematics, 5th in science and 8th in reading. By the year 2012 we had fallen to 27th in mathematics, joint 20th in science (with Slovenia), and 23rd in reading. In the latter year the top places were held by different Asian countries, including China.

These comparisons highlight a major problem for a country with pretensions to remain a leading economy in the world. The education system is not supportive of such ambition, and may indeed be a handicap to it. British politicians are aware of the problem, but do not appear to agree on a solution. Copying the Chinese approach is not an option in a liberal society. We never adopted Confucianism, and Hobbes was given the elbow a long time ago, but educational policy is too important to be left to teachers, particularly to the left leaning activists in their midst. Education is a critically important element in our economic infrastructure, and as such must be integrated into our economic objectives. Strict disciplinarianism may not work, but neither does ‘cuddly’.
© Tom Kilcourse August 7th 2015
Watch Your Words
Tom Kilcourse

I have no special interests in semantics, but when the definition of a word becomes sufficiently loose to affect decision making and cause general confusion it is time to clarify its meaning. The word I have in mind is ‘economy’.

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