On 10th March, just before Hilary Term 2016 finished, the Oxford Chinese Students and Scholars Association were very honoured to invite a well-known, Chinese-born and fully qualified science teacher in the UK, Ms. Jun Yang-Williams, to ‘the Chinese School: Winner or Loser?’ panel discussion event at Wadham College, which was attended by hundreds of British and Chinese students and academics. The panel discussion was also joined by Prof. Therese Hopfenbeck and Ms. Ariel Lindorff from Oxford University Department of Education, and was moderated by Ms. Yuxi Zhang. This aimed to provide the audience, who are interested in hot educational topics evoked by BBC2 documentary ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough: Chinese School’, with unique and professional insights into British and Chinese education.
Prof. Therese Hopfenbeck, Ms. Ariel Lindorff and Ms. Jun Yang-Williams
Ms. Jun Yang-Williams first gave a speech on ‘British vs Chinese Education: What can we learn from each other?’. Yang-Williams has earned international fame from the BBC documentary mentioned above by being one of the five teachers from China who took over the education of 50 year nine students in a Hampshire school to see whether the high-ranking Chinese education system can teach Britain a lesson. Doubtlessly, kids who received tough modern Chinese style education scored higher in the final test.
Ms. Jun Yang-Williams first gave a speech on ‘British vs Chinese Education: What can we learn from each other?’
Yang-Williams informed us about the projective facts following the positive experimental results produced in the program. For instance, 60 Shanghai teachers were invited by the Education Minister of UK to England to help 30 schools teach Mathematics in order to catch up with Eastern Asian counterparts in the international ranking of mathematical performance. Moreover, the exam board, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), have signed a contract last year with the Chinese government in Science and Mathematics which presents the AQA syllabus to 15 schools from Beijing or Shanghai to teach them the creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills that Chinese students lack. She claimed that the BBC programme is not a random isolated event and has something behind it.
Before going into too much detail of the program, Yang-Williams talked about her personal experience of her motive to come to England and become a teacher. She has been writing diaries for 10 years, and has revaluated the questions accumulated over the years about language, culture and identity during the filming of the programme which she herself does not have an answer to.
Ms. Jun Yang-Williams has been writing diaries for 10 years
Yang-Williams believes that this documentary programme has largely reflected her ten years teaching experience. Then, she put forward the idea that the disparity between British and Chinese schools comes from the following aspects: curriculum, teaching pedagogy, assessment, teachers, parents, school system and behaviour.
Curriculum wise, almost all British schools have a vast variety of subjects including Religious Study, Drama and Dance which Chinese schools merely have interests in, while the Chinese only concentrate on Science and Maths.
‘I cannot say that student-centred is British and teacher-led is Chinese, we all have both of them, it’s just about different percentages,’ said Yang-Williams. British teachers’ pedagogy values learning by doing hands on experience, group work, discussions, investigations, role playing and research projects. Also, they pay more attention to differentiating the class according to students’ ability so that all pupils can be appropriately challenged and be guided to make progress. They look for engagement and possibly inspiration. ‘When insufficient progress has been made it should be clear what the plan of action would be to address this next lesson… Make it clear that you can see what each and every student has learnt and what the next steps are to secure progress,’ she quoted from Beere, J.
Tracking is how Yang-Williams monitors her students and what enables her to prepare the next lesson. Usually, each student gets a predicted grade at the start of an academic year based on their past performances, and after assessments, teachers have to identify the under achievers and swiftly take action, tutorials after school, for example. These actions then involve a lot of communication with parents who are likely to be supportive.
The event was attended by hundreds of British and Chinese students and academics
The veteran teacher gave us a summary that the British are more aware of the significance of the development of a series of soft skills covering team spirit, information processing, leadership, self-direction, communication and so on. However, the disadvantages have been outlined by a sentence that Yang-Williams has once put into an article published, ‘assessment for learning has turned British teachers into performers’. The British-favoured education system not only distracts teachers from the main focus of teaching to planning and administration work, but also increases stress for learners so that they can be emotionally highly charged, easily causing conflict and chaos in school.
In terms of assessment method, Chinese students’ destiny is solely dependent on the one and only one external assessment called Gaokao. In contrast, British students can spread their pressure over the year on exams taking place in January and in June. Course work and projects also contribute 25% to the final grades. Although Yang-Williams spot that British assessment system allows occasional failure and gives students chance to improve and adjust mindset, she pointed out that the recent British government is going to get rid of the re-sits which will hugely affect the ranking of schools in the league table as the percentage of pupils achieving A* to C grades will vary in the absence of a second exam.
Teachers from both countries struggle with students’ behaviour and attitude. The Chinese consider being rebellious against teachers, who are the authorities in school, is an unacceptable behaviour. On the other hand, British encourage students to question and challenge teachers and to be individuals. Yang-Williams brought up her opinion on teachers and students standing on the same level, and she had to earn respect and not gain respect automatically, by a process not only through extensive subject knowledge, but also strong will, dedication and commitment.
The veteran teacher shared her decades of research and teaching experience
‘By the end, the pupils taught by Chinese teachers outperform the control group – yet the head was still reluctant to acknowledge the advantages of those methods…’, Yang-Williams quoted from Nick Gibb, the British Minister of State for schools. Yang has been mentioned several times in Gibb’s work and the passionate Chinese ‘invader’ is definitely looking forward to further cooperation in education between the two countries that she both deeply loves and promised to assist both countries to learn from each other.
Next up was Dr. Therese Hopfenbeck who is the associate professor and director of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment. She has got experiences in secondary school teaching and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment),which supports her research on how international testing has shaped public policy across education systems as well as her publication on large-scale comparative assessments.
Speech from Prof. Therese Hopfenbeck
Dr. Hopfenbeck started off by informing us about the publicly debated PISA rankings which show that England has fallen from 4th to 16th in science, from 7th to 25th in literacy, and from 8th to 28th in maths. She also quoted from Nick Gibb, ‘our children’s education has been suffering in relation to their peers over the last decade’. Potentially, PISA results have an influence on education policies as the British Secretary of State for Education has underlined the urgent need to reform British school system by learning from best-performing countries including (Shanghai) China.
The ODCE preface 2009 writes ‘…the stunning success of Shanghai China which tops every league table in this assessment by a clear margin, shows what can be achieved with moderate economic resources in a diverse social context’. Interestingly, Dr. Hopfenbeck found that equity between schools and districts, rather than its overall top performance alone, was celebrated in the Chinese mass media. Evidently, England has disparity with rising pass rates in national tests while Shanghai has welcomed evidence of educational equality with desired low school variance. However, she rigorously interrogated the effectiveness of the PISA research since it does not take into account the difference in school systems and variables outside the schools. Furthermore, she agreed absolutely with Yang-Williams that it’s all about the balance of student-centred and teacher-led to form high quality teaching, and she also noticed that teachers, unfortunately, can be forced to change their pedagogy, when the accountability mechanisms are too strong.
Dr. Therese Hopfenbeck is the associate professor and director of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment
The danger of overlooking important features of the contexts in which practices are embedded was emphasised by Dr. Hopfenbeck. She laid out an exploration of reasons for Shanghai’s success in PISA made by a Chinese researcher. Traditionally, high parental expectations in cooperation with schools plus students’ belief in the power of effort can really raise the achievement of a child. Modern factors include the openness of the Chinese education system, and curriculum and teaching reforms in Shanghai. Dr. Hopfenbeck was fascinated to learn the fact that Shanghai is open to foreign educational theories, international education exchange and the education system in China is influenced by John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Benjamin Bloom and a few other foreigners, and she was keen to hear audience’s opinions on the above statement.
Finally, Dr. Hopfenbeck dug out the shining point of British education which the Chinese can enhance their education towards, which is that the national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens and has been thought to help engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.
After two informative and intriguing speeches, the moderator invited the previous two speakers and Ms. Ariel Lindorff to give a panel discussion session. Ms. Ariel Lindorff is a researcher and doctoral candidate in the Oxford University Department of Education. As a child, she attended Chinese language primary schools in Shanghai, Xi’an and Hong Kong. She also worked as a secondary maths teacher in the USA for over seven years. Ariel’s current dissertation research involves a mixed-methods study of school support networks in New York City. Her broader research interests include educational effectiveness and improvement, issues of educational equity, comparative and international education, and networks and collaboration in education.
The panel discussion was structured under three different themes based on the questions collected through registration and other means.
Panel discussion session
The first broad theme emerged was about the documentary.
Ariel: Do you feel the methods of teaching that you used in the documentary are representing the teaching in Chinese schools in general?
Yang: China is economically diverse. Even the five of us from the documentary all come from different regions, and one teacher who comes from an advanced and economically developed city has her class students all coming from rich and affluent families, whereas I come from Xi’an where my class had 70 normal students, so our teaching style is very different in the same country. You cannot say which way is representing China… I really don’t care about what kind of criticism you have on Chinese education, but something about that is right and we want to learn what Shanghai has done to teach all those students well in maths. That’s the attitude.
Moderator: Therese, do you want to continue the interesting discussion about the balance you mentioned?
Therese: Back in the 80s, the American reading researchers were fighting over which method was the best. Some young students at that time tried to interpret things from reading and find solutions themselves, others said they wanted more direct instructions. After 30 years of research, more or less everybody now in the American reading researches agrees that the balanced approach is the best…
Ariel: There is some evidence to support the idea that sometimes some of the most struggling students who are certain groups of disadvantaged students benefit quite a lot from direct instructions.
Ms. Yuxi Zhang, Ms. Jun Yang-Williams, Prof. Therese Hopfenbeck and Ms. Ariel Lindorff
The second broad theme analysed the role of assessment programs like the international test PISA.
Moderator: Therese, do you want actually briefly introduce what PISA is?
Therese: PISA is an international study measuring what 15 year-olds are able to do when they finish compulsory study. If you ever heard of TIMSS, the biggest difference between TIMSS and PISA is that TIMSS are based upon the curriculum in different countries, while PISA say they are curriculum independent and they focus upon literacy skills in reading, science and mathematics…PISA is led by OECD, it comes out every three years and it has become increasingly influential around the world because it leads the government policy level in each country, and each country has a member from the policy level in PISA government board, so they sit and discuss which tasks and themes should be measured and which should not. OECD would argue that it is a democratic study because all the participating countries are discussing what should go into this study. In addition, students are reporting their motivation, their interests and background such as how many books they read at home, what kind of professions their parents are having. Because of that, a lot of secondary analysis have looked into, for instance, the relation between social economic status and achievement score in PISA…
The event has gained tremendous attention and support from Oxford academics and social media
Moderator: PISA is one way to bring countries into one scope, but how do you accommodate the cultural difference and factors in this large scale international assessment programme?
Theresa: PISA is controversial. As probably some of you know, two years ago, more than hundred academics in England signed up and said that they did not think PISA was measuring valid information. One of the claims was that it does not take context and cultural differences into account. There is a big discussion because there are some themes which you will never measure. For instance, in science you will not have a question about evolution, because you cannot have any theme which will provoke any country, so we should measure things that are really neutral. Some researchers say we should be more forward thinking and we should discuss what kind of skills we need to know about the future, and perhaps some of them are controversial and we should dare to look into them.
Moderator: Ariel, could you also link back to your own research since we know you have a broad interest in education effectiveness, do you think this sort of assessment programs facilitates the effectiveness?
Ariel: I mean I am a little sceptical, but most of the work I do is looking within our school system alone, when the local or state assessments are looking at children developments. So I have seen challenges to PISA as an instrument to compare. For example, if you look at Finland, one of the challenges of its initial success in PISA was to look at performance in university. Students were performing very well at the age of 15, say, in maths, but actually at university level maths, they face a major challenge in the same country. So what does it mean to do very well in PISA in maths, and is it that we want to know about what students can do later? Because ultimately we look at students’ performance in order to prepare education policy shifts.
Audience asking theme related question
Therese: I also want to mention a fun result from PISA which shows that when students are asked about their happiness and how they feel about themselves, English students and students from Shanghai are actually not that far away from each other. But students in Peru and some of the more poor countries are much happier.
Audience: I remember a teacher in the BBC documentary talking about the welfare system. Like in the UK, if you don’t work hard, the government will look after you, you can claim benefits and so on so forth. So that’s why some students don’t feel pressured enough to work hard to get a great result. But in China, result is everything, you have to get into the universities and then you gain respect and parents will be happy. So I wonder how you think of the wider social policy and welfare system playing a big role in comparison of the two countries’ education policy.
Yang: I know it’s a sensitive button the teacher you mentioned pressed. There are some elements of truth there, but it’s not completely that reason that demotivates British students to be academically successful. 万般皆下品, 唯有读书高. From Ancient times, we have always been thinking that study is the most prestigious stuff to do. Also, look at the rank by Confucius, 士农工商, see, 士 is the first one, scholars, and 商 is the ones who make profits by exchanging products, whose moral standard is really low. So our Chinese traditional history has played a main part, our ancient history ranked knowledge, education, scholars top, and that has been inherited all the way to the modern society now.
Prof. Therese Hopfenbeck answering audience’s question
The third broad theme explored how the UK and China could better cooperate in the education sector.
Moderator: What kind of cooperation between the UK and China can we expect in the future, in addition to teacher exchange?
Yang: That’s all your people’s work, young people at Oxford and Cambridge and future is yours and tasks are on your shoulder. You have learned English system, when you go back, do bring that knowledge and experience back and make your country better. I am sure you will be doing a fantastic job. Good for you.
Ariel: In addition to teacher exchange, I think it’s really useful to find ways to expose children and young people to other cultures. I was very lucky to be raised in different cultures in different places. One of the most interesting things in the documentary for me was seeing the children being introduced to things like fan dancing, not just to the academics, but cultural experiences, and they seemed to really take to that and I am not surprised. So any exposure to cultural experiences is very useful.
Final Q&A session
After many intellectual flares, the three panellists shared with the audience in the themed panel discussion, there came the most exciting Q&A session. The audience were free to raise whatever questions which hadn’t been covered.
Audience: I am really fascinated by one of the questions about whether these comparisons between countries are sort of valid at all. I think one issue that hasn’t really been talked about is the nature of teaching professions in different countries and how you go about qualifying to be a teacher, whether the requirements are tough, whether it’s respected to profession society. I was wondering if you could comment whether you think the data, the study and the research exist to make valid comparisons, not necessarily between the UK and China, but between countries at all.
Therese: Some would say you cannot use PISA to answer your question because the teachers are not asked anything, there is no questionnaire for teachers, while they will argue that you should rather look at TIMSS, because in TIMSS studies which measure science and mathematics among 13 year-olds and 10 year-olds, they have a teacher questionnaire and teachers are asked about teaching techniques and what they do in education and training. So that could be one respond, but again that study has also been criticised because if you rely on self-reports, what teachers say they do are not necessarily what they actually are doing. So that’s why I love people argue that you need classroom research to really be able to compare.
Ariel: I would add to that also, I mean when you say ‘does the data exist’, there is certainly data on what teachers do that you can compare. So I think to say comparisons in general are not valid apparently, it really depends on what are you looking at, and how well have you defined the question that you are asking in making those comparisons. ‘How good are British teachers are comparing to Chinese teachers’ maybe will not ever be a valid question, but if you look at what they do in classrooms, that data does exist for certain country comparisons certainly, in terms of classroom observations…
President of the Oxford Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Mr. Zhu Li, presented special gifts to the panellists
Unfortunately, the moderator had to close the discussion because of time limitations and she invited the president of the Oxford Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Mr. Zhu Li, to present special gifts to the panellists. The event was finished with rounds of applause.
This event didn’t only attract British and Chinese students, but also gained tremendous attention and support from Oxford University Department of Education and University of Oxford China Centre. It also appealed a lot of social media including The Xinhua News Agency, Europe Weekly and UK Education Weekly etc. Their reports have had extensive influence and have given rise to a new wave of debates.
Group picture of participants
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Links for the video recordings of the event: