British teachers have educated many of the most outstanding students in modern China. For example, the Hong Kong College of Medicine founded by James Cantile would grow into the University of Hong Kong. One of the Scottish physician’s pupils was a certain Sun Yat-sen, who went on to become the founding father of republican China. Or take St John’s University, which was founded in 1879 in Shanghai. The Anglican college was the first to use English as its teaching language. Its A-list alumni include Rong Yiren (the “red capitalist” who founded Citic Group), IM Pei (the architect behind the Louvre Pyramid) and Raymond Chow (the Hong Kong filmmaker who made Bruce Lee a superstar).
But what happens if the situation is reversed? Can British schools learn anything from the Chinese system?
In the United Nations’ 2014 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), China ranked as the top-performing country in mathematics, reading comprehension and science. British students ended up lower than 20th in all three categories.
Perhaps that’s why the BBC devised Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School (yes, the phrasing is odd, which might be an indicator of the country’s educational shortcomings). The three-episode documentary follows a month-long experiment in which mainland Chinese teachers take over a British classroom. Five Chinese teachers are put in charge of 50 teenagers in year nine of Bohunt School in Hampshire. Many of the typical elements of the Chinese education system are then employed: no talking, lots of note taking, extended school hours, a special uniform, and compulsory group exercises. The ultimate test: comes after four weeks when the pupils with Chinese teachers are assessed against their local peers in mathematics, science and Mandarin.
Unsurprisingly most of the documentary’s best moments come from the inevitable cultural clashes. One of the Chinese teachers is stunned at her students’ response to news that Zayn Malik is leaving the boyband One Direction. Several girls are seen crying. “I have never seen a Chinese person in school crying her eyeballs out just before an exam for a singer leaving a pop band,” the teacher says.
There are tears of a different variety when the students are put under pressure Chinese style – one is made to stand facing a wall, another is shouted at. One of the exasperated teachers comes close to prompting a mass walkout from the class when she screams that English pupils are so badly behaved that it is no wonder that Chinese children do better.
Since the first episode was shown in early August, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School has become a popular topic on social media in China and the UK, and it’s fair to say that the methodologies used by the Chinese teachers, and the attitudes of British pupils in response, have failed to impress the other’s audience.
Perhaps that’s because the documentary looks to make the more obvious points. “The producers were much happier to exploit cultural differences rather than challenge them,” a columnist writes in Caixin Weekly. “There is no doubt that the interest Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School has generated in the UK comes from a growing curiosity about China, and it therefore seems like a missed opportunity by treating the topic so lightly.”
The Global Times also weighed in, claiming that the documentary has focused on cheap laughs, and questioning whether genuine teaching is even possible if a film crew is embedded in the classroom.
“The documentary is entertaining but nowhere educational,” the Beijing News agrees. “It is simply a meaningless experiment.”
The British reviews weren’t too different. The Guardian describes the format as a “comedy based on cultural difference and misunderstanding”. It added: “The programme-makers are certainly enjoying it, and play the music from The Great Escape and The Dam Busters as head teacher Mr Strowger walks around checking on progress. What, has China actually invaded Hampshire and the plucky Brits are taking them on?”
So what was the final result of the experiment? The pupils with Chinese teachers did outscore on average their peers in all three tests (mathematics: 67 to 54, Mandarin: 46 to 36, science: 58 to 50).
“As a Chinese student I only care about the final score. China has won three-nil,” a popular weibo commentator celebrated shortly after the final episode was aired.
Back in the UK, much of the media professed not to be too concerned by the outcome of the experiment.“China’s schools are testing factories. Why is Britain so keen to copy them?” a columnist wrote in the Guardian. “Chinese parents crave the British private schools being set up across China. Chinese students cram into US and British universities.”
That’s probably true, with famous colleges like the UK’s Harrow School set to open a new Shanghai branch next summer.
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