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Lessons from China

I was lucky enough to visit China last week, taking part in an education conference in the city of Hangzhou, a historic and very beautiful garden city two hours west of Shanghai. This really was an adventure into the unknown. With the knowledge that I would be teaching a class of 46 Chinese students in front of 2000 delegates – I set off with great excitement on Wednesday morning. My arrival in Shanghai on Thursday was somewhat overshadowed by Donald Trump’s state visit, but I was met at the airport by my contact ‘Li’ who escorted me to my hotel in Hangzhou, where my room greeted my arrival with hand-written messages of welcome and a framed photograph of, er… me!

The conference considered what might be learnt by Chinese teachers through experiencing methods of teaching that are the norm in other parts of the world. Put very simply, whereas Chinese students develop excellent skills of literacy and numeracy, and have very positive attitudes to learning, it is the areas of critical thinking, innovation and creativity that Chinese educationalists are looking to develop further. The reverse can be true in the UK, so here was an opportunity for us to learn from one another.

On conference day I was joined by two teachers from California for a meeting with our translators, at which we ran through our lessons and presentations; and communicated how we would like our classrooms to be set up. I sensed that seating children in table groups, rather than in rows of desks, was unexpected. We then observed a Chinese teacher deliver the first lesson of the day. I was told that this teacher was a very famous teacher in China, which in itself said a lot, after all, besides our sports coach John Boy, how many celebrity teachers can you think of in the UK? With no translator, I struggled to understand the exact content, however I could tell that the children were captivated by her energetic and expressive delivery. They followed her instruction intently, producing work that got the capacity crowd very excited. This was stadium teaching at its best.

Following China’s most famous teacher was never going to be an easy gig. I rearranged the classroom for group work, made acquaintance with the class backstage and was introduced to the conference to dramatic music and an intimidating montage of images of me emerging from rugged mountain scenery. I imagine this would be how Sky Sports would introduce ‘Live Teaching on Super Sunday’.

As Arsenal fans will understand, the main event was somewhat less dramatic, but my lesson did feature a warm-up spelling investigation, a section on developing inference skills and a writing activity based on Judith Kerr’s ‘The Tiger who came to Tea’. Some students did this very well, planning ‘The Dolphin who came to Dinner’ and ‘The Bear who came for Breakfast’, but overall what struck me was how quiet the class were, and how unusual it felt for them to engage in paired talk and collaborative group work without teacher support. I sensed that they too might have been a little nervous in front of such a large audience.

I was followed by the Americans, who modelled ‘Harkness’ principles of education. Here the teacher facilitates a group enquiry in response to a stimulus, in this case a poem called ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams. Here the teacher is only expected to provide minimal input, avoid eye contact with the person speaking (to encourage them to address the group, not the teacher) and never comments on the quality of another person’s contribution to the discussion, as everyone’s contribution is of equal value. The aim is to support students to build on what they have heard, think deeply and internalise their understanding (interestingly, their lesson felt similar in approach to the philosophy sessions we run at Highgate Primary). This approach was also challenging for the class, but they adapted well and I could see that a few children were highly engaged with the discussion, contributing with real insight. Clearly, Harkness principles suit their style of learning.

After each lesson, in X-Factor style, each teacher was given feedback in front of the 2000 delegates from a panel made up of Professors of Education. This would have been nerve-racking, but happily it was in Mandarin without translation. However I got a good round of applause and was later inundated by teachers requesting selfies! A transcript of my feedback was later published on the conference website. I put this into ‘Google Translate’ – apparently the panel was impressed by my use of clear objectives, ‘which keeps the lesson focused and avoids slipping on a melon skin’.

The general conclusion of the day is that, as teachers, we need to be aware of our influence within the classroom. When we talk too much we can dominate, and restrict opportunities for students to express their thoughts and ideas. However without clear instruction, opportunities to learn can be missed. Most importantly, because children learn in different ways, we need to be flexible in our approach and adopt different styles of teaching to suit different purposes.

All in all, this was a fascinating experience and a great opportunity to share ideas about teaching. Although my three days in China received less coverage than Donald Trump’s visit, it would be nice to think that the conference might have made a small difference to what happens in classrooms in China in the future – it will certainly influence how we do things at Highgate Primary.

William