Survive or Thrive? – A Tale of Sino-UK Education

Mrs Yang is well known for her appearance on BBC documentary “Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school” in 2015. The documentary evidenced her dedication to education, which was mostly impressive.

Her new book “Survive or Thrive? – A Tale of Sino-UK Education” was published in March this year. In the book, Mrs Yang recorded her struggles and success as a Teacher of Science in British schools. The book covers 7 chapters including: The British education system, Independent schools, UK-China education comparison and Artificial Intelligence (AI). This summer, we are lucky to have a chat with Mrs Yang.

Q: Thanks for joining us for the interview, and congratulations on releasing your first book. I read it last month and found it informative and entertaining. I particularly liked the chapter which demystifies certain misunderstandings around Chinese education. From our experience, it is not uncommon to see that many British people hold the belief that Chinese education means long hours, rote learning, and a traditional teaching style which borders on the tedious. In your book, you commented that Chinese education is changing and developing very fast, especially in recent years. What are the most significant changes from your observations?

Thank you very much for the interview. In my view, Chinese education landscape has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, in which I have been teaching in the UK. Back to my old days, almost all Chinese schools were guided by the Chinese domestic education system. International schools and bilingual schools, on the other hand, was a rare phenomenon.  

Chinese school are very diverse nowadays, especially in the economically more developed regions and areas. In recent years, I have had opportunities visiting various types of schools in Shanghai, meeting with teachers and exchanging ideas. One of the International schools  has impressed me very much. Spending time in the school, I found it hard to tell whether I was in China, or in the UK. 

With regard to all types of schools in China, diversity in education has certainly thrived. In theory, more choices should be a good thing, but in reality, it could also cause confusion, especially to those who are financially fortunate. Parents struggle to make the right choices for their children, and they tend to focus on the name of the school, rather than the strength of their kids.

Mrs Yang’s Science classroom in Bohunt School in Liphook

Q: The two education systems (Chinese and British) are very often evaluated by exam results, although the various formats of those exams differ markedly. For our students, both the experience of learning and the learning outcome are almost equally important. From your point of view, what can we take from both systems to ensure that the learning interest is not compromised by the pursuit of good exam results?

It is my experience that both education systems value examination results to a very high degree. British schools often seek for reasons on why Chinese students are excellent in Maths, for example. Having said that, British schools focus on “learning by doing”, making lessons fun, and engaging. British teaching approach is “student centred”, developing students’ soft skills such as critical thinking skills, communication skills and creativity. 

In China, parents play a more active role in children’s learning. It seems to me that strong support from parents has become an essential element in contributing to the success of Chinese students’ academic performance. British parents perhaps should look into it and learn from it.

Q: With the growing wealth of the Chinese middle class and the increasing demand for quality education, over the past decade we’ve seen many Chinese students come to the UK to study. It is said that in 2018 there were 190,000 Chinese students studying in the UK. On the other hand, we’ve also seen a growing number of British schools start to look at the Chinese education market. In your view, is there any change that you would wish to see within those schools in order to make them more attractive or better suited for Chinese students?

British education enjoys its worldwide prestige, and British schools are very popular among Chinese parents. “Learning by doing” and making lessons fun are in sharp contrast to Chinese traditional teaching and learning. Chinese teaching approach is often “teacher entered”, stressing on memorisation and repetitive practise.    

One of the main reasons that British school are thriving in China is that Chinese parents  want a different teaching style. Nevertheless, we must maintain our own identities whilst being exposed to a different culture and education. Of course we need to learn other people’s language in order to understand and appreciate their culture, but it doesn’t mean we have to lose our own culture and values.  

Q: Each year, many British teachers go to China to teach and we know a lot of Chinese teachers also wish to work in the UK. You have rich experience working in China and Britain and specifically in the sphere of education. What is your advice for these teachers? 

I would encourage Chinese teachers to gain teaching experience in England. It will broaden their view points, and make them tougher individuals. To be able to fit in and to integrate in a place of work can be challenging. It requires not only bilingual, but also bicultural. Reading broadly is the key. It is a long-term accumulation, rather than a short burst effort. Assimilation process can be very difficult and painful, but it will transform you after all. 

Q: Your documentary consists of three episodes, each lasting just over an hour. But we heard that the actual shooting took a lot longer. Is there anything that didn’t make it into the documentary that you think is worth mentioning? 

A lot of people have asked me this question! The most memorable experience that I have was the bonds I developed with the students. I was lucky teach them, and I treasure the small tokens and gifts from them. I hope I came across as a good teacher in the documentary program, and I am eager to build better understandings between China and the UK. 

Photos were contributed by Mrs Yang or produced by ThinkChinese

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