When China’s schools do better
MARION O'CALLAGHAN Monday, July 2 2012
The OECD has published its three yearly international assessment of education popularly called the PISA report. According to this report, China’s schools are doing better than schools elsewhere. They do have problems and shortcomings: there is, for example, still too much dependence on learning by heart.
The students, however, are being retained in schools, they are anxious to learn and they are succeeding. The most striking feature of Chinese education is that the Chinese have been able, to a large extent, to bridge the gap in educational performance between the settled and better-off segments of their population on the one hand and the fragile, vulnerable segments on the other. The children of migrant workers at the edge of large cities like Shanghai are as anxious to succeed, as are children of China’s new middle-class. Both will spend an average of six extra hours after classes, studying at home.
In my last article I mentioned North of Ireland. There Catholic schools are doing better than others even though most of these will serve a Catholic population recently emerging from severe discrimination. Why is this not happening with the vulnerable populations of most of Latin America, the Caribbean, the USA and much of today’s Europe? It should be noted that it is not only the descendants of recent immigrants who fall below the average performance. So do the children of the working class. Few of these will go to Oxford and Cambridge or to France’s super-universities.
The PISA report points to one possible factor in the case of China. Children as young as six or seven years old when questioned, state that success will depend “on me”. They explain that if they work hard enough they can succeed. It is not only they who think that; so do their parents and their teachers. It is unlikely that either Chinese migrant labour or Catholics in Northern Ireland, do not know the history of semi-Colonialism, as the Chinese call it, or settler-Colonialism, as Catholics in Northern Ireland may call it. They do. Indeed, it is this memory of being wronged as a people rather than as a helpless individual, which spurs one to success and galvanises students, teachers and parents. What is absent, however, are the expectations that therefore failure is the probable outcome in what is a hostile environment. This expectation of failure is not only with the students in marginalised and working class in many other countries, including our own. It is there with parents and above all with teachers. The explanation of success and of failure as being the result of “the family” is less explanation than it is expectation. This expectation is also determinism. After all, there is little that one can do about the “family” but hope for conversion in a never-never future. This determinism is strongly there in the often quoted or misquoted Biblical “poor will always be with you”. In that case the factors which keep the poor poor are irrelevant; poverty is commanded and demanded by God. The return of the superstition of a “generational curse” as the reason for success or failure or for deviant behaviour linked to poverty and marginalization is not good news. This “generational curse” as explanation and expectation would be well known in both China and Ireland. It is there in Tao-ism in China and it is there in some of the reworking of medieval superstition in rural poor Ireland. That success or failure “depends on me” abolishes the intervention of the supernatural as cause.
Education as Priority
It is recognised in Europe, the USA, China and Singapore, that the crucial factor governing the future of their societies is education. Call it developing human resources, if you like. It is both the quality of that education and the egalitarian nature of its insertion into the society that will to a large part determine economic flexibility and success. We can talk economic diversity until the cows come home. Where the basic tools of literacy are not there in a large chunk of our population, we have limited our creativity. If language and comprehension are weak, so are lines of communication and command. If discipline, accuracy and the rules of empirical research are not taught early o’clock, do not expect to enter the modern age as anything but undiscerning consumers.
There has been little concern over the quality of our education at any level. Our concern over certification has driven out the love of learning for its own sake. It is there in advertisements in the Press for Third Level institutions. What is often underlined is how quickly you can get that little piece of paper. That, in a country where QRC was established to be equal to British public school and where CIC equalled that.
While we fool ourselves, China measures her universities against the best in the world. After all, “it depends on me.”