The Battle of Bohunt: a clash of Chinese and Anglo-Saxon cultures

25 Aug

A unique experiment was conducted at Bohunt School in Liphook, Hampsire, in the Summer Term 2015 when five teachers from China were transplanted into Bohunt School to teach 50 year 9 (13- and 14-year-olds) students for a period of four weeks. The rest of the year 9 students continued to receive the curriculum diet from their usual teachers in accordance with the national curriculum and pedagogical methods in this country.  (Ofsted described Bohunt as outstanding.)

At the end of the process, both groups were tested by the Institute of London University College London to see which set of students performed better in mathematics, science and Mandarin.  (At the time of writing, I had viewed only one of the four episodes so am unsure about what the outcome was.  However, there was much that I learnt from the experience of watching the first instalment.)

The five visiting teachers were filmed by the BBC working in conjunction with the Open University (OU) while teaching the Chinese way to see how well English children learnt through those methods.  The first instalment of the series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, was, in a number of ways, a revelation and in other ways unsurprising. 

Writing in The Sunday Times on 2 August, James Gillespie and Sian Griffiths observed: “The conflict between the rigorous Chinese approach and the more relaxed British method led to tears from students and teachers alike.”

The Chinese teachers had never previously confronted a class of young people who had to be persuaded to attend and learn.

Yang Jun, a science teacher, who qualified at Shaanxi Normal University in Xian, central China, and then taught at the local school, remarked that classroom management was one of the most daunting aspects of teaching on these shores. Chinese students, unlike our lot, are very compliant and conditioned to work long hours.  The 50 Bohunt students, for the first time in their lives, experienced four weeks of intensive work where each school day was 12 hours long.   Further, they were subjected to direct teacher-led, didactic teaching.

Yang clashed with one boy who insisted on bringing cups of tea into lessons. She threw Sophie, another pupil, out of the class after she said the teacher was rude for suggesting British students lagged behind their Chinese counterparts. Yang was also baffled when a girl fled weeping from the classroom after learning that the One Direction singer, Zayn Malik, had quit the boy band.

Li Aiyun, who teaches at Nanjing Foreign Language School in eastern China, was mystified by the students’ approach to learning. “When I handed out the homework sheets, I expected everybody to be concentrated on the homework,” Li said. “But when I walked in the classroom . . . some students were chatting, some students were eating.  Somebody was even putting make-up on her face. I had to control myself, or I would be crazy. About half of them tried their best to follow me. And the other half? Who knows what they were doing?”

Static cameras without operators were strategically placed in and out of the classrooms to make students and teachers less self-conscious and secure more authentic scenarios.  Bohunt’s headteacher, Neil Strowger, insisted: “If you visited my school in the week when cameras were not there, you would not see behaviour like that.   There is no low-level disruption.  However, if you go into a class and do not treat the students with respect, you are going to get problems.”

He was not impressed with the Chinese methods of teaching, describing it as “mind-numbingly boring”.   He observed that British students expected to have the right to question teachers and were not used to rote learning.   Whatever the thoughts of Mr Strowger, the reality is that Chinese students from some parts of their country do extremely well in international league tables.

In particular, 15-year-old Shanghai students topped the last round of tests of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in reading, mathematics and science, while English students languished behind in 23rd, 26th and 20th places respectively.   But should this lead the observer to conclude that the English system of education is inferior?

Rosie Lunskey, 14, a Bohunt student, who was part of the experiment, said she liked the Chinese teachers. “They definitely cared about what they were doing, which is cool. They were really passionate about their job and that we learnt. British teachers care but show it in a different way. They ask more questions and challenge you more instead of just talking at you. The longer days definitely helped with the learning. We definitely were rude to the teachers, partly because we knew there were cameras there and partly we thought because we didn’t know them, we could act out.

“Their teaching methods did get results but we didn’t always feel we were learning much. They get results because we are in school for so long.”

The experiences of the Chinese teachers were not dissimilar to mine when, having grown up and trained in India, I came here to study further and then teach.  I found the attitudes to learning of Indian and English students at opposite poles of the spectrum.  Indian children had been keen to learn; English children, on the other hand, were always questioning why they needed to be taught.

On the other hand, I had found the Indian methods of teaching boring and lacking in stimulation. I had, subconsciously, adopted some of these practices and had to re-learn pedagogy to earn the respect of English students.

Despite this, I concluded that the educational cultures and attitudes to learning between the Orient and the Occident were worlds apart.   Learning is hugely valued in the former; much less so in the latter.  Youngsters in India see education as the passport to successful and fulfilling lives freeing them of the shackles of poverty.

The attitude of students in England was one of defiance towards learning and best epitomised by the question asked at a time when the nation was flourishing economically: “What’s the point of learning? I am going to get a job anyway?” When the nation was overtaken by financial crises, the question changed to: “What’s the point of learning?  I am not going to get a job anyway? And what is more, the government will ensure that I receive my benefits!”

In many respects, the learning approaches in China mirror the best practices in the Indian sub-continent.   It is unexpected, therefore, that our five Chinese visitors had such a culture shock when taking on the task of teaching for a month 50 teenagers at a secondary school in a sleepy village in Hampshire.

These teachers would have done well, when they were at their wit’s end with some of the students, to heed the words of Confucius.   “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places? If one remains not annoyed when he is not understood by people around him, isn’t he a sage?”

Sequel

At the end of the experiment, we learnt that the year 9 Bohunt students taught by Chinese did better than their counterparts in maths and science by 10% compared to the cohort taught by the school’s regular teachers.  The tests were set by the University College Institute of Education.  The academics warned however, “The results and findings are not refined and can only be used in very broad terms.” Despite this they reported that “There is a higher performance level within the Chinese group and a degree of separation between the groups which did not appear before the project began.”

Yang Jung, one of the five visiting teachers, believed that the English students needed a stronger worth ethic. “I just feel English students might be a little bit easy to give up. As soon as they found it challenging academically they start to talk to each other and they give up.”

Bohunt Headteacher Neil Strowger said: “I think that the way that the Chinese students respect their teachers is something we ought to have in this country.  We probably do need a longer day at school, but do we really want children working 15, 16 hours a day? That to me doesn’t really sound like childhood; that to me sounds like almost prison. The Chinese school works with children who are already bright, who are already motivated… It does challenge the most able students but does it do it in a nurturing way?”

Meanwhile, 19 students from the school will shortly be engaging in the Chinese Exchange.  They will visit Xiamen, a city located on the south-east coast of China.  The name city’s name means ‘a gate of China’.

The students will participate in a cultural programme based at the University of Xiamen, which is linked to the Confucius Institute of Southampton University.  What this experiment has taught us is that both countries have much to learn from one another.  Bohunt must be congratulated on their pioneering experiment which will enrich English students educational experience.

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