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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Education in quarantine: what can we learn from early childhood educators in China?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 April 2020

Jie Gao and Clare Brooks.

While we are marching towards the third week of lockdown in the UK, Chinese early childhood practitioners are busy preparing for the re-opening of kindergartens after more than two months of quarantine. We asked some of them to share their experiences and lessons learnt during quarantine. We also sought out articles written by Chinese Early Years experts for supporting practitioners and parents in such an unprecedented situation. Their advice is underlined.

Acknowledge the challenges

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese schools were on holiday for the Spring Festival. When the country went into lockdown, the school starting date was postponed indefinitely. Just like in other places around the world, Chinese kindergarten teachers had to support parents in educating and caring for young children at home.

For Chinese early years teachers this involved new responsibilities, including: (more…)

Summit to think about: what will Chinese visitors learn from our emerging apprenticeship system? And what can they teach us?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 February 2017

Martin Doel
In December, Education Secretary Justine Greening led a small delegation to the latest UK China Education Summit in Shanghai, part of the wider UK China ‘People to People Dialogue’.
When arriving in China you anticipate striking differences in our two education systems, given our very different histories and political cultures. This is no doubt the case in many areas of education policy and practice, but in technical and professional education, through the four summits I have taken part in, I’ve become increasingly struck by the extent of shared concerns and similarities of approach between China and the UK.
When the Summits began, in 2012, university and school education were the predominant themes, but on this occasion the greatest attention in the formal ministerial summit was given to technical and professional education. In both nations it seems that the critical role of this sector in increasing prosperity, productivity and social equity is being (more…)

Culture shock: can Chinese teaching methods work here?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 17 August 2015

The BBC documentary Are our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School is creating some discussion in the UK about Chinese and British teaching methods, but what about the reaction in China? Here are three anonymous comments from the thousands posted:

  • “Some people say that the Chinese education system doesn’t encourage innovation. A person who recently took the gaokao (the university entrance exam) said the questions have all been reformed and don’t ask for the rote answers that were common a few years ago. Now, the teacher tells us we should ask if we don’t understand something, and is more prone to discussing things with us. Students who are cultivated to be modest, understanding, and respectful of the authority of teachers will most likely become people who respect the older generation and follow order”;
  • “Looking at it from another point of view, Chinese students are better able to suffer in silence than students in the UK”;
  • “Chinese education is being demonised”.

The programme has gone viral in China and many Chinese people with fluent English are even going to the trouble of posting (more…)

Eton's headmaster is right: we must break out of exams straitjacket

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 August 2014

John White
In an article for Radio Times this week, Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, has called the examination system ‘archaic’. He sees it as “little changed from Victorian times”, a hindrance to collaborative working and to education for citizenship.
He is right on every count. As is now all too clear, the exam system does little to test deep understanding, blights the secondary school curriculum, causes students great anxiety, perverts the job of teaching, favours those families who can best manipulate school admission arrangements.
In Who needs examinations? A story of climbing ladders and dodging snakes – to be published by IOE Press next month, I ask why it is that despite these patent defects, we still cling to an institution which may have been all the rage in the 1860s but has been under fire in every generation since then.
It is ironic, if no less welcome, that the person at the apex of private education should lead the latest sortie. For it was the privately educated new middle classes of Victorian England who championed examinations over the patronage system of the landed establishment as a surer route for their children to a university place and a comfortable life. Soon joined by the top public schools, Eton included, middle class schools from Repton and Clifton down to local grammar schools made the examination system their own preserve. When elementary school students in the 1890s began to see its advantages for themselves, the shutters came quickly down. After 1904, the elementary schools that catered for over 80% of the age group were deliberately made an exam-free zone. This approach outlasted the end of fee-paying secondary education after 1944, when the new tripartite system excluded secondary moderns from the examination stakes until 1965.
For nearly a century, then, secondary school exams were the prerogative of those who could afford school fees. In the age of official full democracy in which we now live, we take it as read they are for everybody. Some 75% of students now get good GCSEs. The age of equality has arrived.
Or has it? The coming of league tables in 1992 has enabled families to identify local schools – private as well as state – with the best exam pedigrees. The private ones do well here, as even those among the sleepiest thirty years ago have worked hard since then to attract custom by glittering exam results. Better-off people can also maximize their chances of acceptance at a ‘good’ state school by moving into its catchment area, or, if a church school, discovering new talents for choral singing or campanology.
Tony Little is right about this Victorian relic. It has survived so long because it has been able to reshape itself – at least for public gaze – as a taken-for-granted institution of a democratic society, while at the same time trying to satisfy the very natural desire of those who have done well in life not to see their children doing worse.
It is time to jettison it before it takes us into what countries in east and south Asia often call their ‘examination hell’. A Chinese colleague and I have recently set up a small group of ‘International Critics of Examinations’, drawn from eighteen countries and from every continent. We hear reports of thirteen-hour days worked by students, the toll on family life, suicide rates among examinees, endless rote-learning, the frenzy and corruption of the annual Chinese school-leaving examination. We also hear of the ways in which the rich can work the system by moving into good school districts and employing private tutors.
Exams came to Japan and India from the USA and the UK, in the heyday of the West’s own love-affair with the institution in the late nineteenth century. Leading lights in these and similar countries are now looking for more humane alternatives.
Tony Little is right again. As he says, “here is the irony: we seem intent on creating the same straitjacket the Chinese are trying to wriggle out of.”

School leadership in China: party lines and personalised curriculum pathways

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 November 2013

Toby Greany
I lived in China for two years in the early ‘90s working in a teacher training university in Wuhan. I loved my time there, but life was challenging in many ways.  I would be surrounded by fascinated crowds everywhere I went and was often followed by jeering shouts.
So it was amazing to land in Shanghai last month and find a city transformed.  What impressed me was not just the overhead freeways or the world’s fastest train: it was the fact that people no longer spat in the street or smoked indoors or shouted at me as I went past. These changes signalled a deeper transformation than any number of breathtaking skyscrapers.
So what about education: how had that changed?
When I taught in China 20 years ago, I used to try and persuade my students not to get up at 6 am to read the dictionary. At the time I felt it epitomised their propensity to work hard at the wrong things. Their conception of learning was undoubtedly a traditional one: it took me about six months to get them to accept that I wasn’t going to give up on group work activities in class, so they might as well get on and talk to each other instead of waiting for me to start teaching again.
Some things hadn’t changed much when I visited Shanghai. On my second day I led two three hour workshops for head teachers in different districts. I couldn’t imagine talking for 3 hours solid and was sure that experienced heads would have plenty to say, so had planned in various group discussion activities.  The silence after I outlined the first paired discussion was deafening – I was taken straight back to my first class 20 years ago! My solution was to tell them about the no-hands-up approach to formative assessment and then stuff the microphone into someone’s hand: to my relief they were perfectly happy to talk at length in front of the group.
When I talked about leadership and leadership development, it seemed at first as if the concepts just didn’t translate. Head teachers there are appointed and moved between schools by the district. Every Senior Leadership Team includes a Party Secretary, who is separate to the head teacher and who appears to call the shots on matters of policy. As a result, the idea that they might spot and develop talent, form strategic partnerships or take courageous decisions to address underperformance all seemed alien at first.
Yet, as the first session developed, something interesting began to happen. In an opening sequence I asked what the heads thought were the characteristics of an effective leader.  One man stood up and gave what was described to me later as a ‘politically correct’ answer. It turned out he was not a head but an ex-army man now working for the district, I suspect as a party official. To paraphrase his answer, it was along the lines of: an effective leader does what the Party instructs and works for the greater good of China.
At the time though I was confused: as he finished each sentence the other heads in the room burst out laughing. I was relying on consecutive translation, so had to wait to find out what was so funny, yet as the sentences were translated they seemed boringly innocuous.  What was going on? Surely he was losing face being laughed at in this way, and surely the laughter signalled an irreverent acknowledgement that real leadership was considerably more complex than the official view?
From that point on the real conversation began, and continued over lunch, then dinner and subsequent days. One head talked about how she tackled weak teachers; another how she spots and develops talent; another how he developed personalised curriculum pathways and built links with German universities; and another how she has implemented co-operative learning strategies in her school. I sat with a Director of Education discussing school to school support and knowledge management approaches for sharing effective practice between schools.
They discussed their concerns and challenges as well. How to expand education for all and secure equity at vast scale? How to manage the massive internal migration of rural workers to the cities? How to develop creativity and avoid the stringent gaocou (university entrance exam) dominating the entire system with an overly fact-based version of learning?
Of course, these were mostly Shanghai-based practitioners I was talking to and everyone kept reminding me that Shanghai isn’t representative. Nevertheless, just as I was impressed by the deeper changes in the wider city, I was equally impressed by the subtle changes in the schools and classrooms I saw from the China I knew 20 years ago.
Did the ex-army man lose face in that opening dialogue? I don’t really know.  My sense is that the Chinese are more likely to laugh because they are embarrassed than because they want to mock someone. So perhaps they were more embarrassed than irreverent; but surely, underneath that embarrassment, must have been a deeper acknowledgement that such an answer misrepresents the complexities of the real world of leadership?