Back to School – Lessons from Beijing (June 2017)
My week-long tour of Beijing schools has taught me a vast amount – not just about Chinese schooling and teaching styles – but that, in China, education is taken seriously. Each of the seven schools that I visited was proud of the education that it provided and was keen to show me around.
At Peking University Elementary School, I was lucky enough to watch a morning of teaching. The classroom was simple – bare walls and desks in rows facing the teacher and blackboard. This was the same in every Chinese-run school that I visited – pupils’ work was only displayed in common areas, leaving the classrooms clear of distraction. Sitting at the back of four traditional lessons, I saw rows of self-disciplined children with excellent powers of concentration, keen to contribute and eager to learn. They supported each other’s learning, there was no hint of competition between them, and they listened to each other with respect and patience. They learned new Mandarin characters; read texts; worked out the directional view of an object; and discussed the application of finding the average of a group of numbers to real life situations with equal enthusiasm and confidence. It was only when asked to improvise a tune on the recorder that suddenly the room froze and there were no volunteers to perform in front of their peers: the request to engage their creativity and produce work where there was no wrong or right answer was a step too far. After every lesson, the pupils had ten minutes’ break, while the teachers and assistants were able to prepare the room and resources for the next lesson. Staffing was very generous with specialist teachers for every subject, giving teachers much more time to plan, prepare and discuss their work. And, of course, every lesson was observed by a group of colleagues and student teachers who then met to share their ideas and develop their professional practice. There was very little written down in the lessons that I observed – time was spent on discussing answers rather than individual practice. One teacher knew the names of every pupil in the class – quite a feat! I asked how they knew the children had learnt anything and the answer was through the formal testing procedure. Results of tests were displayed outside in the playground for all to see. A rich extra-curricular programme provided the breadth that perhaps was lacking in the national curriculum. Astronomy, gardening, and Technic Lego were some of the 140 clubs on offer each week.
There is a growing market and desire for international schools and a visit to Harrow Beijing confirmed this. Private dual language international kindergarten schools provided me with another experience. The Hopeland Group of Kindergarten in nearby Tianjin offered luxury facilities including a swimming pool, theatre and farm and gave parents full access to their child via a live video stream. The dual language PKU College and the International Montessori School both gave parents a choice of full or partial immersion programmes using their own curriculum models, with PKU using material from an army of researchers and designers to create bespoke animations for use in school and at home. The success of both these dual language schools filled me with confidence for Kensington Wade’s model. They had an emphasis on learning about Chinese culture through the recitation of ancient poetry, music and classes in calligraphy. This respect for tradition was greatly in evidence in the Confucius Academy where students learnt traditional sinology (Chinese history, language and literature, music, archery, philosophy and calligraphy).
So what did I learn? I come back with much more insight into the Chinese traditional teaching methods that may have been experienced by Kensington Wade parents. I can talk with confidence about what I feel is the best of both educational systems. I have a better idea about how to incorporate the learning of traditional Chinese culture. I appreciate how seriously staff, parents and children take their education and how teachers are revered and respected. And I can’t wait to get started.