Chinese school system offers the West a lesson in educational achievement


From:The Australian

November 03, 201212:00AM



I AM in a classroom in Beijing. I have been introduced as a "professor who is going to give us a lecture on language development and the differences in types of English." I have 40 minutes to do so. The class has 42 Chinese students who are learning English and all have their books open, pens in hand in anticipation. So I draw an emu on the board in coloured chalk, name the parts and use it as a means of discussing Australian English and its grammar.

The students, in response to my questions, stand, give their answers and are then clapped by their classmates. There is no desultory conversation, no distraction - the focus is acute. This is not unusual.

Chinese education is steeped in success. English is taught as a subject, not as an experience. Moreover, by teaching English as a language, Chinese students understand grammar, parts of speech, syntax, punctuation, idioms and structure. They have a better, more informed and more accurate grasp of English than many Australian students.

Part of this is due to brilliant teaching. The preparation of Chinese teachers is first class. Not everyone who wants to be a teacher makes the grade. In one class I observed, a teacher was presenting a lesson on possessives, those pesky little things called apostrophes. It was one of the finest lessons I have ever seen.

The teacher's preparation was thorough, her explanations were pin-sharp, the examples she used on the - wait for it - blackboard were relevant and clear. Her reinforcement of skills and apostrophe usage was insistent. More than this, she had prepared slides that were projected on a pull-down screen. They were outstanding. Homework was set and then, the final slide for the students: "Thanks for listening."

There are lessons in Chinese education for our schools. While Australian education is riven with factions where pedagogic philosophy, arguments over teacher training, testing, NAPLAN, teacher pay, unions and Gonski fuel debate, China is outstripping Australia through two things: quality teaching and a culture of success related to hard work.

In the 2009 Australian Council for Educational Research report, Second Languages and Australian Schooling, by Joseph Lo Bianco and Yvette Slaughter, the following observation is made: "Good teaching is the single most controllable variable in successful language learning."

What China has grasped is that by learning English, future generations will be able to move globally and do business just about anywhere. Meanwhile in Australia, student numbers learning a second language have crashed.

While the federal government was still drafting the white paper on Australia in the Asian Century, Chinese education was showing the way. Part of this is due to the emphasis China places on achievement and exceptional teaching practice. A rigorous testing program measures students and exposes variable teaching. It works like this:

Students undergo regional tests after 10 weeks and national tests twice a year. The test data is collected by the schools on students' and teachers' performance. The data is ranked, then used to judge teachers, with salary linked to performance. It's a simple equation: better results mean better salary. It's called motivation. If a teacher's results are not good for two years, the teacher is demoted to a lower class; there is no choice and no appeal. If the results still fail to improve, dismissal is a reality. Teachers work incredibly hard and are regarded as performing a significant role. They are professional and active learners themselves.

One only has to look at the results on the Program for International Student Assessment to gauge China's success.

The PISA tests are held every three years and in 2009 students in Shanghai topped the world rankings for mathematics, reading and science.

The result prompts the head of PISA, Andreas Schleicher, to comment: "The findings indicate that China has an education system that is overtaking many Western countries."

This is not just city-based, either. "Shanghai is an exceptional case, but what surprised me more was the results from poor provinces that came out really well," Schleicher says. "The levels of resilience are just incredible. In China, the idea is so deeply rooted that education is the key to mobility and success. The results for disadvantaged pupils would be the envy of any Western country."

Schools are viewed in China as places of industry and application. It is arresting to see parents on pushbikes, proudly delivering their primary-aged children on the handlebars or astride the back wheel, in crisp neat uniforms. Meanwhile the school is a beacon of achievement.

According to Schleicher, school buildings in China tell you a lot, even in very poor areas. "You get an image of a society that is investing in the future, rather than current consumption," he says.

The school day in China is long. Some schools start just after 7:30am and end at 5:30pm. Where I taught in Beijing, classes end at 5:30pm, but senior students may well work on until 10:30pm. It was a shock to see full classrooms of Year 12 students, heads bent over books, with no teacher in the classroom. They were studying in week two of the academic year. They did not need supervision.

This, Schleicher says, is part of the reason China outperforms all other countries on the PISA tests.

"In China, more than nine out of 10 children tell you: 'It depends on the effort I invest and I can succeed if I study hard.' They take on responsibility. They can overcome obstacles and say, 'I am the owner of my success', rather than blaming it on the system."

Critics allege Chinese students are over-tested and lack independent thinking, learning by rote, in other words. This is misguided. In Shanghai, the education system places emphasis on problem solving and creative thinking. This was the city that topped the 2009 world PISA rankings.

Australian education needs to learn from China's success. China's route to become the top-ranked country is disarmingly simple: authoritative, informed and inspirational teaching; self-motivated, ambitious and focussed students; and regular external assessment. As for class sizes; it's a no-brainer. In China, 42 students a class is not unusual. The essential difference is the teacher. This is dragon education, and its outcomes roar loudly.

Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer, education commentator and senior literature teacher at Trinity Grammar School, Kew, Victoria.