Duncan PartridgeDirector of Education

What can we learn from other educational systems?

Thursday 25 May 2017

Our Director of Education shares his reflections on a recent trip to China

For some years now, the ‘high performing’ schools of China, Singapore and other countries, as defined by PISA global education rankings, have prompted countries further down the league tables to ask the question: ‘what can we learn from these educational systems?’

On one hand, this is exactly what PISA was set up for; to learn from other educational systems in order to improve our own. However, the ‘high stakes’ nature of the rankings can mean that nuanced responses are side-lined. Instead, it’s more common to see panicked policy makers advocating wholesale transplantation of systems and pedagogies to replace ‘failing’ models at home.

I was recently invited to speak at the inaugural ‘National Symposium on Public Speaking and Oral English Teaching in Secondary Schools’ in Nanjing, China, a fantastic opportunity to speak with Chinese teachers and to learn about the education system there.

Research into Chinese conceptions of ‘excellent teaching’, has suggested that teachers see a four-stage learning process: 1 memorisation and mastery; 2 understanding; 3 application of knowledge to problem-solving and 4 questioning and critical analysis.[1]

In her excellent book, Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan says that both her own experiences in Shanghai and the PISA test results, suggest that education in this part of China delivers in relation to the first three. However, she also suggests that, despite a governmental commitment in 2001 to move away from an over-reliance on preparation for high-stakes examinations (characterised as ‘force-feeding the duck’), there is no clear evidence yet that this has resulted in greater creativity and critical analysis.[2]

My experience in Nanjing allowed me to test out these perceptions for myself. I must admit to feeling rather nervous prior to the event; I feared that my talk on the importance of oracy and critical thinking might generate a degree of resistance in the audience. I needn’t have worried, my presentation seemed to sit perfectly alongside the others. Each of the presenting teachers described their attempts to change a system which has placed a disproportionate emphasis on English grammar and spelling exercises. They also made a clear connection between activities such as debating and public speaking with structured discussion and the development of questioning and critical analysis skills - number four of the Chinese conception of the stages of learning. One teacher said, ‘Our students are beginning to use their knowledge to analyse social problems, paying attention to their own responsibilities.’ Knowledge transmission and deliberative practice work well together.

I believe that educators in the U.K. and China have plenty to offer each other. This spirit of open-minded learning from and alongside teachers from different educational systems, in order to enhance or complement what works, is surely better than crude attempts at wholesale transplantation, driven by simplistic interpretations of PISA results. As the results of the conference showed, we all need to think critically, and that applies to the PISA results too.

Find out more about our thoughts on Secondary Education here.


[1] Pratt D, Kelly, M, Wong S, Chinese conceptions of “Effective Teaching” in Hong Kong: towards a sensitive evaluation of teaching. International Journal of Lifelong Education 1999; 18 (4): 241-58

[1] Crehan S, Cleverlands, 2016, Unbound (London)