You have most likely seen or heard of the recent BBC documentary series, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, heating up debates on education worldwide. The entertaining and controversial three-part series chronicles one British school as 50 of their students are immersed for one month in a typical Chinese school environment, taught by five experienced Chinese teachers. The show follows the highs, lows and drama that unfolds as the class tries to adapt to and find success in their new learning environment, as well as to prepare for their competitive examinations against their classmates, who are still being taught by their British teachers. In the end, the fascinating documentary attempts to answer the age-old question: Is an Eastern or Western education best?
Many of the Chinese teachers at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), myself included, have had experience in both local Chinese schools and international school environments. We can all admit that, like in the BBC documentary, there are many differences between the two learning environments.
My colleague, Ms. Vivien Bai, says, “Before working at YCIS, I worked in a local middle school as an English teacher. In local schools, both the teachers and students have lots of pressure for exams, so they spend a lot of time doing different worksheets and aim to achieve high exam scores.” She adds, “As an international school teacher, it’s a very different teaching experience. In international education, there is more focus on each unique student, and as teachers, we provide more help and address the needs of our different students. Classes are student-centric, and students have many opportunities to discuss, experiment, make their own decisions and deductions, as well as having more opportunities to work in a team environment and improve their social and communication skills.”
In my own experience, I know that in local schools, students spend a great deal of time on drill-based and individual studying assignments. This is why Chinese students often show strong academic scores, and is most likely the reason why the children in the BBC’s Chinese School achieved the highest test results. However, students in international learning environments develop dynamic and cooperative thinking skills, something that is highly valued in today’s competitive world. So knowing that there are benefits to both of these learning environments, is it possible to strike a balance?
At a school where the focus is on truly integrating both Eastern and Western principles, philosophies and education models in a unique learning environment, both students and teachers alike benefit. In the Kindergarten and Primary sections of our program, we have two co-teachers in every classroom, one international teacher and one Chinese teacher, who serve as equal partners, and are responsible together for the care of the students and the learning that takes place in the classroom.
Another Chinese co-teacher at YCIS, Ms. Sissy Shen, explains, “The co-teaching model is key to emphasizing both English and Chinese languages, and leads to fluency in these two major world languages while also providing the opportunity to experience different cultures. As a result, co-teaching helps students appreciate both Eastern and Western cultures, languages and values.”
This type of education model also has a positive impact on the teachers, as well. Ms. Lina Fei, a YCIS co-teacher, says, “Working with a co-teacher from a different cultural background than your own is fantastic. As teachers, we share different teaching methods, learn from each other, and achieve progress together. Not only are we helping our students develop a global mindset, we also broaden our own international horizons.”
In the documentary, most of the British children struggled with their new classroom environment. However, a few children seemed to prefer the Chinese model and found themselves grasping topics and concepts easily. With any education model that is based on a single curriculum or learning model, some children will easily find success, while others might fall behind.
Personally I prefer a blend of teaching methods. I think providing children with a flexible learning environment, and delivering a true mix of educational experiences by using more than one teaching method, can help every child find success and stimulation in the classroom. Ms. Ada Shi, another of our Chinese co-teachers, says, “Every student has a different way of thinking and problem-solving. For example, for Math, the Chinese and Western methods of teaching the subject are very different. The Chinese co-teacher might use more numerical strategies to teach the subject, whereas the international co-teacher might explain the concept with a more hands-on approach. All students benefit because they have now learned the material in two very different ways.”
One of my favorite parts of the documentary was when the children in the Chinese school were introduced to Chinese culture for the first time. The students participated in fan dancing, morning exercises and traditional puzzles. This introduction to Chinese culture encouraged the students to be more open-minded about the experience and they were then better able to embrace their new learning environment.
At international schools operating in China, it’s important that students are introduced to and immersed in their host country’s culture. At YCIS, this is part of the reason why our students have an hour of Chinese cultural lessons every week, in addition to their daily Chinese-language lessons and our many cultural extracurricular offerings. My colleague, Ms. Carrie Qian, says, “International schools are meant to bring all cultures together, making the students truly global citizens. It’s very important for students to learn about the culture they live in so that they can have a better understanding of its people and their ways, as well as the language.”
One obvious downside to the Chinese School in the BBC show was that students weren’t exposed to the assortment of activities they were accustomed to in their normal school life. One young boy, in particular, yearned to play sports again so much so that he skipped his after-school study sessions just so that he could return to the field with his friends. The Chinese School put a great deal of emphasis on students’ academic achievement, as well as their results on a rigid physical examination, but the school did not provide a well-rounded curriculum. Even the British school headmaster was concerned that the children spent so much time studying that they were missing out on their childhood.
My colleague, Ms. Dana Zheng, says, “Academic examinations are developed for assessing students' competitiveness in an academic environment using standardized and quantified methods. However, in my opinion, it’s not all about exam results, and I think it’s the responsibility of any educational institute to prepare students not only for the challenges of an academic setting, but also for life, and for their future by providing real experiences. It's important to expand the range of students’ studies to include the arts, music, sports and character development, in addition to preparing them to be academically successful.”
So can we truly know which education model is best? I am certain people will all have their own opinion. What we do know is that by providing students with the opportunity to experience a learning model that values more than just one educational system and one culture, they will benefit not only in their academic career, but also in their bright futures that lie ahead.