Magazine article New Internationalist

Fatal Attraction

Magazine article New Internationalist

Fatal Attraction

Article excerpt

Across the world, Western governments are hard at work making their schools more Chinese. In 2016, the UK Schools Standards Minister, Nick Gibb, announced that over 8,000 primary schools would adopt Chinese-style teaching of mathematics, backed with $53 million in funding. Less than a year later, publisher HarperCollins announced that it would bring Chinese maths textbooks to British classrooms. The government has also flown in teachers from Shanghai to help improve education.1

The Chinese, on the other hand, seem to be equally eager to embrace an English-style education. In 2016, Wycombe Abbey, a girls' boarding school in Buckinghamshire, opened a sister school to students in Changzhou, a medium-sized city in China's Jiangsu Province.2 Harrow, Dulwich College, Malvern and Wellington had already opened branches in larger cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu. At a starting price of $20,000 the cost of such an education is hefty, especially as the average per capita income in Beijing and Shanghai was about $7,000 in 2016. But demand has been growing.

Britain is not the only country that admires Chinese education. Nor is China the only country that wants a British-style education. There is a peculiar movement of mutual admiration between traditional Western nations and Asian countries. It goes way beyond borrowing teaching methods, textbooks, or programmes such as A-Levels and IGCSE. It includes all aspects of education, from curriculum to pedagogy and from school hours to assessment.

Learning from the East

Over the past two decades, Western nations such as the US, UK and Australia have become increasingly infatuated with education in East Asia. This obsession originates in the simplistic and misguided view of good test scores as educational excellence. It all began with the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a test for 8- and 12-year-olds.

In the 1990s, East Asian education systems, represented by Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, topped the international TIMSS league tables. Their superb scores, especially compared with the relatively mediocre performance of Western nations, prompted Western education systems to look East. The US promoted maths textbooks from Singapore; 'lesson studies' from Japan showed how Asian teachers worked.

Chinese education became the new object of desire after its stunning performance in the 2009 round of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests in maths, reading and science that are taken every three years by 15-year-olds around the world. Students in Shanghai aced in all three subjects.3 (They would do the same again in 2012.) The results of students in Britain, US and Australia were disappointing - average to begin with, and trending down thereafter.

Mistaking test scores in a few subjects as the measure of educational quality, Western media, the operators of PISA and TIMSS, politicians and education pundits came to the conclusion that Asian education was superior and worth emulating. An overwhelming number of media reports lionized Asia's 'great' education; academic texts such as Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems (Tucker, 2011), and Catching up: Learning from the Best School Systems in East Asia (Jensen, 2012) reinforced the message that the West is doomed because of its horrible education, while China and other East Asian education systems prepare their citizens to unseat it as the new dominant power. To win this competition, the West must become more Chinese, at least in education.

Political leaders have also been eager to use China to drive their agenda. For example, Michael Gove, then UK Secretary of State for Education, sounded the alarm in an op-ed piece published by The Telegraph in 2010: 'Schools in the Far East are turning out students who are working at an altogether higher level than our own.' He vowed to 'implement a cultural revolution just like the one they've had in China', referencing the decade-long political campaign in the 1960s that practically destroyed China's education system. …

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