Educational Musings from the Far East

Posted on: 06 Dec 2016

Following the publication of the 2016 PISA results this morning, Millan Sachania, Headmaster at Streatham & Clapham High School, offers musings whilst on educational business in the Far East.

Whilst on educational business in the Far East recently, I picked up the Hong Kong edition of China Daily of 28 November 2016. Its pages yielded some fascinating news stories.

First, an item on page 8 about a Chinese college student from an impoverished background, whose bursary was terminated because he had been seen wearing a pair of Nike trainers worth 500 yuan (£58). He claimed that these were a gift from his mother, who had saved for months and had bought them at a 60 per cent discount to replace his worn-out basketball shoes. To no avail; his stipend was withdrawn. This elicited the following response from a graduate of Dezhou University, Shandong province: “I agree with the college taking away the student’s financial support because these stipends are scarce…I know that there are a lot of college students who can barely afford good food for their three meals a day and could not save 500 yuan even through months of efforts.” An employee of a culture and media company in Shanxi province concurred: “I think it’s reasonable for the college to remove the student’s financial support, because by desiring expensive shoes…he is acting ostentatiously in my eyes.” I mused on the complexities of determining bursarial awards based on a student’s sneakers. Would a pair of Adidas specimens result in a higher or lower fee discount than, say, a Nike or Reebok? I could well imagine some earnest and determined finance officer devising a sliding scale of benefits predicated on the brand and model of such footwear.

Then, an interesting feature on page 12, on Shuren High School in Wenzhou, East China’s Zhejiang province, which recently held a ceremony to bestow “bonuses” on those of its students who performed well in its entrance examination. In all, the school awarded bonuses totalling 8 million yuan (£932,000), with a highest award of 100,000 yuan (£11,660). China Daily remarked that “it is, of course, normal to offer some material encouragement to students” (is it?), though the newspaper harboured misgivings about the school’s possibly engaging in unfair competition: “The schools in the city have long been competing to recruit the best middle school graduates, and if one of them competes by offering large amounts of money, that might be unfair for others that can’t.” It also suggested that the school might have used these awards for “publicity purposes”, in order to attract media attention. More food for thought. Not only the unashamed financial incentive, mirroring the perplexing consumerism of Chinese post-Communist society. But also the flagrant utilitarianism of this approach, which debases education to the status of an instrumental exercise. Not one to emulate, I venture, and China Daily agrees: “It is good to reward excellent students, but such rewards should only be symbolic.”

“Harder homework comes with new tech” was the headline on page 2. The writer, Mr Yuan Zhou, noted that, “Every day, WeChat [a social media chat platform] keeps me and other parents in the loop about what has been taught in class, where our 7-year-olds stand in quizzes and tests, and the homework to be completed even before the bell rings. After work I often count the high and the low test scores of his class that are posted on the WeChat group…As my son entered Primary Two this fall, the internet-enabled engagement with teachers has grown in both volume and intensity, to the point where we wonder if the homework is for parents, not for children.” Mr Zhou finds most challenging the video tasks that the teachers set parents, those projects that “ask parents to film their children reciting, telling a picture story or acting out what they’re taught.” But expectations of parents with regard to “video homework” have apparently crescendoed this Hallowe’en: parents needed to “create PowerPoint slides with texts and pictures about its history…before they filmed the presentation and uploaded it.” I could not help but think that the next step would be for teachers to award dual grades for each assignment, one for the pupil’s component and the other for the participating parent’s. Of course, it would then be rather jolly to publish this expanded data on “WeChat” for communal scrutiny.

Page 10 has an extract from the “Governing Principles of Ancient China”, based on 360 passages originating from a compilation (the Qunshu Zhiyao) commissioned by the seventh-century Tang Dynasty emperor, Tang Taizong. “Confucius said, ‘In serving a superior, the subordinates will not only follow by obeying the commands of his superior but also follow by observing the superior’s conduct. Whatever preferences shown by a superior will be exceeded by the preferences of his subordinates. Therefore, a leader must be careful with what he likes or dislikes for he is the role model for the people.’ (Scroll 7: Li Ji)”. Blind obedience by one’s staff is now rare, and rightly so, but the point about the potency and influence of a leader’s attitudes is surely spot-on.

Finally, an intriguing article entitled “Teacher turns panda droppings into paper”, on page 5. From this, we learn that a 68-year-old retired primary school principal in Shaanxi province, Mr Liu Xiaodong, began experimenting with panda excrement two years ago with a view to turning it into paper. He finally cracked it on 17 November this year, a date that will doubtless feature brightly in the annals of paper production. Mr Liu Lijie, who helps in Mr Xiaodong’s workshop, said that he did not understand the idea of turning such droppings into paper at first, “but [Mr Xiaodong’s] dedication touched me, so I stuck with him to study it further.” Clearly an ingenious and ecologically responsible way of recycling the 70 per cent of the bamboo that pandas do not digest. I suppose there is just one problem before this is turned into a major industry: there are very few pandas and thus, presumably, a scarcity of droppings. None the less, wouldn’t it be splendid to replicate this process in our school science laboratories? The exoticism and exiguity of the raw material might of course make sourcing it a challenge. Imagine the budget bid of any science department that decided to instruct its Key Stage 3 pupils in such alchemy. It might, I mused, be more cost-effective to open a menagerie affiliated to the school comprising an embarrassment of pandas and several acres of bamboo. I look forward to discussing this with my unsuspecting Bursar on my return...


About Dr Millan Sachania

Dr Millan Sachania is Head Master at Streatham & Clapham High School, an academically selective school in South West London.