David Thomas has worked as a Head of Maths at a central London comprehensive school and as an adviser at the Department for Education.
Imagine I told you there was a way to make our children perform ten per cent better in their exams after just four weeks of study – and that, although it involves changing a school’s timetable and teaching style, it still leaves plenty of room for leadership opportunities and extra-curricular activities. You’d expect to hear a clamour insisting that we roll this out in all schools immediately.
Instead, Chinese educational, highlighted by the recent BBC programme Chinese School, has earned itself a long list of critics. They don’t like it because it of its values or, more precisely, because it values knowledge. They argue that we should not be seeking to learn from Chinese teaching, despite its superior results. They concede that doing so would make our children learn more, but that this would come at too high a cost. Any improvement in our teaching of knowledge, they argue, would stop pupils being creative thinkers or challengers of the status quo. Yes, Chinese teaching may improve the learning of rules and information, but it does nothing to teach originality.
They seriously appear to be arguing that in a system in which 35 per cent of 16 year olds failed English GCSE this year our problem is learning too much vocabulary, knowing the laws of grammar too well, and sticking too rigidly to the traditions of the literary canon. Otherwise, why complain that Chinese teaching is good at helping pupils learn information?
Of course, these are not the problems our children face: last time I checked, most teenagers were being held back by breaking the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar far too frequently. And it is frankly immoral to withhold from our children an opportunity to be highly literate in the speculative hope that doing so will make them write more creative poetry.
But these critics are making a deeper mistake. They fail to realise that knowledge is not the enemy of creativity: knowledge begets creativity. You cannot challenge a status quo you do not understand or push a boundary that you do not know exists. For a challenge to stick, to make progress, to advance human knowledge, it needs to be a knowledgeable one.
Creativity is taking a rich tradition and changing an assumption to create something new, or taking two traditions and combining them in a way that has never been done before. Creativity is borne out of knowledge, not ignorance. Think of any great creative leap in any field. It will have been taken by a person with deep understanding of the traditions of their day – but who was able to challenge them in a meaningful way because of their knowledge.
So it is because I want our children growing up able to challenge the status quo that I want to learn from Chinese teaching. It is because I want them to improve the world that I believe they need to learn as much as possible about it. And it is because I cannot bear the thought of letting down thousands of children by brazenly rejecting the chance to teach them more that we need to challenge the ideological demeaning of knowledge.
The Headteacher of Bohunt, the school featured in the programme, complained to the BBC that “Chinese teaching methods were on a collision course with teenage British culture and values”. He then goes on to dismiss the effectiveness of Chinese teaching, arguing that it is “abundantly clear” that Chinese values are “the real reasons” for their educational success. So should we not entertain the prospect that its teenage British values that need changing, rather than Chinese teaching?
After all, these were the values that said it’s okay to ignore your teachers if you don’t like them, and to make a cup of tea in class if you’re not enjoying it. They were the values that excused pupils discarding gifts from their teachers on the classroom floor, much to the upset of their generous visitors. If I had to choose between these values and the Chinese values of hard work and respect for adults, it wouldn’t take me long to decide.
We do need to value originality of thought and academic dissent, of course we do. But we need to recognise that these do not stand alone. To value originality we first need to value knowledge; to value dissent we first need to value respect for authority. Dismissing these virtues as fit only for robots is to deprive our children of the education that would equip them for even greater things in the future.