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Chinese School: Reality TV disguised as a documentary?

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A kettle boils merrily at the back of the crowded classroom. Pens are put down; mugs are pulled out. 50 year nine students run riot as a Chinese teacher, apparently undeterred, zooms through trigonometry at breakneck speed to an audience of himself alone.

Welcome to BBC2’s Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, a scientifically and morally questionable ‘experiment’ at Bohunt School in Hampshire, one of the country’s top state schools, where five highly experienced Chinese teachers attempt to teach British kids using Chinese methods.

Don’t be fooled, though. This is not a classroom, but a stage upon which two seemingly incompatible cultures are set to collide in an effort to find out why Chinese pupils are three years ahead of their British counterparts – and it brings out the worst in everyone.

The Chinese teachers come from a pressure cooker education system powered by “authority, discipline and ruthless competition”. As a single child in China with all your family's dreams upon your shoulders, bettering yourself is not enough. Extra classes stop becoming ‘extra’ when everyone attends them – if you don’t go, you get left behind.

The reality that pushes them is that “知识改变命运”: knowledge changes one’s destiny, opening doors to a top university, a well-paid job and the status and power that money buys.

However, what is ‘reality’ in China may not be so in UK. Chinese pupils, terrorised by test scores, rankings and incredible pressure from parents, have no choice but to “adjust themselves to society” and its brutal methods, the very opposite of the child-centred British education system which seeks to accommodate and adapt to the individual needs and methods of the pupil. The Chinese teachers are here as guests, absolutely committed to imparting knowledge and “representing the Chinese way of teaching”. To them, this really is an experiment.

This is where the asymmetry lies. Bohunt teachers want their methods proven better, that repetition and regurgitation is not the way forward, though university students are likely to be grimacing when one pupil objects “I cannot write a whole paragraph and listen to her; it's literally impossible”. The troublemakers in the class want the adrenaline rush of terrorising a teacher on national television, while their parents look on with bemusement at the funny little foreigners who think they can do better. Everyone but the guests of the country see the Chinese School as a source of entertainment, an innovative Tuesday night reality show. “It’s about China, it’s about a nation,” Chinese science teacher, Miss Yang, croaks, voice almost gone from the day’s exertions.

The sociological concept of ‘face’ is extremely strong in China, so while it’s easy for us to dismiss her as melodramatic, her sense of national identity and responsibility is typical of the Chinese, and much stronger than our own collective identity as Britons. This contrast in expectations leads to anguish, tears, and riveting television, perhaps at the expense of the Chinese teachers.

While the Chinese hold humility, discipline and academic excellence above all else, the West worships individuality, self-discovery and free speech. The flouting of authority is even glorified in books, films and television – how many Harry Potter books have ended with Dumbledore apologising to Harry and rewarding him for being a rebellious hero? Pupils like Sophie, however, succeed only in proving the adage “knowledge makes humble, ignorance makes proud”. Apparently, the price of classroom order and her own learning are a fair price to pay for the petty thrill of disobeying a teacher.

Of course, the students are being especially outrageous for the cameras, but what is particularly uncomfortable is that viewers will find their opportunistic unruliness sadly unsurprising – we’ve all been through a few lessons taken by a supply teacher, after all. To see it filmed and broadcasted, however, is no less nauseating and frankly embarrassing to us as a society.

Putting it in a Chinese way, they lose face for themselves and their country, but it counts for nothing because they don’t care. I was, however, relieved to notice the lack of racial abuse, which I know from experience not to be below British schoolchildren, so I assume that they were warned not to cross that line before filming started.

Mr. Strowger, headmaster of Bohunt School, feels “deepest sympathy” for his students, but it’s the Chinese teachers who are suffering disrespectful pupils and unsupportive parents and staff at one of the top schools in the country. They want the Chinese school to fail, because it will be funny, because it will prove them right, because it means everything can go on as it has done before – no improvements to be made. When a parent is called in because her son thinks it’s a human right to brew tea in the classroom, she seems to think that education is all just a “damn good laugh”; at a parents’ evening, the Chinese teachers are met with raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and whispers of “why is it all our fault?” These displays of complacency and irresponsibility from some of the parents betray a fundamental flaw in our attitude to bringing up children – it takes both school and family to make a good person.

Documentary or reality show, Chinese School has sparked debate in UK and in China regarding education, family and work ethic. It may produce fabulous grades, but China’s educational climate of corruption and stress that drives some students to success and others to suicide is an extreme we don’t want to aspire to. The more likely solution is a compromise in teaching style as well as a shift in culture towards greater discipline, family involvement and making academic success ‘cool’. Kids have to stop feeling like they have to pretend they put no effort in so as not to be ridiculed for being ‘sad’. It would be interesting to send British teachers to China to teach the children there and see the results, but reality is, Chinese students don't have the time for ‘experiments’.

In the series’ final episode, the year nine students of the Chinese School will be tested against their peers to find out what teaching style works better... on students who have otherwise been taught in the British way all their lives. Though the Chinese teachers are set up to fail, their efforts haven't been futile if they've succeeded in showing the country another perspective on our own children. So maybe what's most important is what you take from Chinese School - will you be simply entertained, or will you learn something?

The third and final episode of Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School airs on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday 18th August 2015.




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