What do you think of BBC 's Are Our Kids Tough Enough?

The show is interesting and entertaining to watch. Sadly, it sacrifices the debate on education to wave national flags and compare “cultures “ for the sake of entertainment. Still, it makes a good point of showing how discipline may be an undervalued component of Western education, and also how hard it is to manage a class today with traditional methods.

China and Britain have different purposes in educating

Regarding the “Chinese way to educate “ that this TV show is trying to discuss, I don ‘t think it really exist. The way teachers approach the classrooms and the topics are not that different from what my parents experienced in France during the 50 ‘s. Different time and place produce different societies, and therefore requires different preparation to live in, i.e. education systems. Definition of education systems are choices that determines the future of a society. China has chosen a nation-state model based on intensive production, and therefore produced an education system to support this plan. As things are changing so fast there, the education system looks painfully slow and mostly failed to deliver children with the skills required to success in the transition the country is experimenting right now. For that reason, millions of Chinese go abroad to study skills like work group, self-reliance, constructive feedback, etc. Companies in China also love to hire returnees for this reason. This BBC show is a good example of the contrast in purposes between British and Chinese education.

source : For Wealthy Chinese Students, Studying Abroad Becomes the Norm

This failure of education system to adapt is not typical of China. A good school should prepare you for the day you will actually enter the job market, that is one or two decades after the class. Then, education is such a conservative institution that it takes ages to integrate even the current changes. France or UK fail to prepare their students to a multilingual world while having all the human resources to achieve it quite easily. Education systems are expressions of historical and political processes, and this BBC show is all about setting up an ideological stage to play the failure of Chinese political system as a farce .

Europe : from child labor to “liberal “ education

In England of the 19th Century, most textile factory were designing machines to be used by children because their labor was cheaper. Fierce debates started in England between those who saw children as the way to grow a bigger working class and those who argued that having children work so early was hurting the future of the nation :

The tendency of the various improvements in machinery is to supersede the employment of adult males, and substitute in its place, the labour of children and females. What will be the effect on future generations, if their tender frames be subjected, without limitation or control, to such destructive agencies?

– Lord Ashley in the Lords Sitting of 15 March 1844

As Andrew Feenberg shows, the decision to abolish child labor turned children from producers into consumers. It exposed new generations to knowledge and opened opportunities for a rapid improvement of technologies. Instead of destroying the industry like many have thought, it unleash new forms of energy to develop it faster than ever.  At the end of the 19th century, industrialism was all about opening elite schools to create leaders for a new society, like Saint-Simon in France with the Arts & Métiers.

In France, the Certificat d ‘études primaires (CEP) was created in 1867 to test requirements in maths, reading, applied sciences and some basic life skills for children around 11-years old. Like in today ‘s China, the level for maths of grammar was much higher than what is in the current exam.  Mostly, students were asked to memorize tasks and processes, and learnt how to keep still on their sit for 10 hours a day. Before the 2nd World War, the French philosopher Alain wrote one of the first book that claim that schools should provide space to learn instead of training students to defined skills :

If the teacher shut up and the students read, then everything is okay ( …)  The improvement of education itself is more important to grow the social well-being than the progress of instruction. “

– Propos sur l ‘Education, 1938. Alain

A more liberal approach of education only started to be considered in the late 1960 ‘s, almost a century later. The French CEP was only abolished in 1989, almost a century after its creation. Like Chinese schools today, French and British schools until very recently were preparing students for mostly industrial jobs characterized with a strong work division and chain of command. New management is now asking employees for more mobility and flexibility, changing the traditional corporation and danwei labour division. Schools may adapt, slowly.

UX in 1902 : machines were designed to be used by children - pictured taken in Lancaster Cotton Mills. Nov. 30, 1908 - source : NARA

On the difficulty of being a teacher The show put those Chinese teachers in difficult positions, because of a supposed lack of discipline from the students. This is not related to the fact the teachers are Chinese, but mainly because they are using wrong methods for the wrong audience. This happen to hundreds of French teachers in France, UK, etc. You arrive with a nice textbook about literature and you find out that half of the students can barely read. Explaining Balzac ‘s lexicon to illiterate is like “playing harp for cows “ like people say in China (对牛弹琴) and won ‘t get you much results at the end. Then, if you decide to restart from Reading 101, you will surely get a blame from the administration and push students to fail at the exam.The most commonly adopted solution is to ignore students that have difficulties and blaming them for being lazy, while you are having fun with the few ones that are doing great. Real problems only occurs when your usual speech to the first row is made impossible by the background noise from the classroom - like in the BBC show.

So, are students wrong or are you a bad teacher ? This is what you start asking yourself when students start questioning your authority (like in the show). In Europe, high-schools and middle-schools teachers is actually one of the profession with the highest suicide rates. Honestly : students are adorable but can be really harsh, administration will leave you isolated if problems occur, parents think you don ‘t do your job well (too much work, too less, or whatever they dislike about you). Then, the whole society think you are some sort of lazy civil servant that has found a quiet place to hide in his classroom.

* “Let ‘s go ! Be brave ! “ –* source : CHAUNV

I remember this Chinese guy who came to teach Chinese in an association in Paris. After a few lessons, he came to the teachers ‘ meeting and announce with a very sad voice he was quitting. The reason was : even after explaining several times, students (adults) were still interrupting him to ask questions, so he thought he was unable to explain things clearly. The school director explained him that in France it was OK to ask details and further explanations, and the students were all very happy with his lessons. It takes lots of attempts and failures to master the art of communicating knowledge (and more) to a group of disparate people you don ‘t know. I encourage everyone to watch the movie The Class (2008) , which shows a teacher handling (well) a difficult class in Paris.

Notes about discipline

In 1975, Foucault wrote an history of the penal system where he examines the idea of discipline :

* “Discipline proceeds from the distribution of individuals in space.( …) Discipline is an art of rank, a technique for the transformation of arrangements.  It individualizes bodies by a location that does not give them a fixed position, but distributes them and circulates them in a network of relations. “*

– M. Foucault, 1975. Discipline and Punish (p.163)

We can say that this part works effectively in the Chinese education system, since the assignment of rank is its main purpose since the Imperial examination for centuries. Apart from the ranking of schools, you have radical differences of behaviors, expectations and results in a single classroom between the class leader (banzhang), the delegates (banganbu) and the rest of the students. They occupy different ranks defined very clearly and usually also have very different views on their future. Read more in my answer about :How does promotion work within the Chinese Communist party?

I know from experience that the relative lack of discipline in Western education can also become a problem later in life, because you avoid making hard decisions that are needed because you think you don ‘t have courage to commit to it. This made me run repeatedly  into problems that I may have avoided with stronger self-discipline. One thing I really don ‘t know is how much the discipline of obeying to a teacher can transfer to self-discipline. People usually hate taking decisions by themselves and love to obey orders, but does “discipline “ help when there is no defined rules or authority to follow ? or does it make it even worst ? This is still an unanswered question for me today.

This text was originally published in quora.

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