The three-hour BBC documentary “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?” is about a group of Chinese teachers who travel to England in an experiment to teach 9th grade using Chinese methods for a month. It portrays the ways of teaching typically employed at excellent Chinese schools and in our laboratory school, which is rated Outstanding by Ofsted, the British office that inspects and regulates state schools. Watch it, but watch it with caution.
I think it is important to spoil the suspense at the outset: the Chinese teachers produce significantly better results with English pupils than do the teachers of an outstanding English state school. The reason you need to know this at the outset is that there is not very much evidence presented in the documentary of how these results are attained. Scene after scene shows boys & girls charmingly rebelling against the harsh and demanding teaching regime, sleeping during lectures, making mischief, and dissolving in tears; the classrooms are appalling nightmares of mismanagement and ineptitude. If the classes were really so constantly awful, how did the teachers succeed? The documentary will not tell us.
The makers of the documentary do a bit of playing to the British gallery. The soundtrack includes music from old prison-camp movies, the Chinese teachers are usually (but by no means always) shown as severe by contrast with the gentle British teachers, and the troublemakers are articulate and sympathetic, not feckless louts. The whole experiment is treated as a competition till near the end.
Again and again the charge is made during the documentary that Chinese teaching does nothing but tell students to take notes and memorize. This in spite of (brief) footage shown during the last hour of Chinese teachers giving help and encouragement, and of students working out an understanding. It also ignores the PISA results on solving problems with which students are not familiar, in which Chinese students outdo British and American.
In short, the documentary does an incomplete job. We are left with some big unanswered questions. They have to do with “Chinese methods,” but they also and more importantly have to do with the culture of learning. It may be that the larger questions are not questions of pedagogy but questions about what a culture values in its young.
We are not answering those questions in a culture where expectation and blame fall on teachers but not on students, parents and society.