There’s more to China than Kung Fu Panda.

Irena Barker casts clichés aside and learns to love Chinese education

I will be the first to admit that, until recently, I knew almost nothing about China. I suffered from a kind of ‘China blindness’ typical of many Brits that reduces a massive highly advanced nation to a series of clichés involving chopsticks and Mao’s little red book.

My sketchy knowledge was based – I am sorry to say – on repeat viewings of Kung Fu Panda and, in more high brow moments, on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if Chinese people were constantly engaged in one long martial arts battle while bouncing about on invisible strings. I’m ashamed to say, I was the British equivalent of the Chinese tourist who thinks the whole of England is like an episode of Pride and Prejudice.

Thankfully, things have changed. When I entered the world of English language teaching, it was clear China is the biggest market there is.

It wasn’t enough for me to continue to confuse Guangzhou with Chengdu. I had to get educated.

And what an education it has been. Although I am still to visit China (invitations on a post card please) I have enjoyed putting together our Chinese issue, learning some fundamentals of business and culture on the way.

I have always had my reservations about the perceived success of the Chinese education system, for example. All that sitting in rows absorbing information seemed counter to any good ideas about modern education.

But, in her article on our China supplement, Jocelyn Wang provides the most articulate explanation (and defence) of the Chinese teacher-centred ‘chalk and talk’ style I am yet to read.

“I was the British equivalent of the Chinese tourist who thinks the whole of England is like an episode of Pride and Prejudice ”

Ms Wang, who is head of teacher development at New Oriental – China’s largest private language education provider – does not sugar-coat traditional techniques. Instead, she calmly explains that, for all its faults, it is a necessary approach that is surprisingly effective.

While child-centred learning favoured by the West may be optimal when done well, it is something of a pipe dream if you routinely have a class of 50 students. She convinces me that a Chinese teacher’s technique of casting ‘seeds’ in her lessons, that students can choose to catch or ignore, has a certain logic to it. But the large classes in Chinese schools are nothing compared to what is being proposed on other pages of our magazine this month.

Arnold Fu, founder of Hujiang EdTech, explains (on the China supplement) that millions of people could have cheap or even free access to learning, thanks to online courses that have been tailored to their needs by artificial intelligence. Large ‘classes’ then, but highly personalised lessons. Teachers, he suggests, will have to brush up on their people skills to make themselves distinct from the robots.

Mark Steed, director of Jess Dubai, suggests that virtual reality could create lessons with far more students than you could fit in a classroom – educating millions of the world’s poorest children.

It’s all exciting and inspiring stuff. Maybe large class sizes are nothing to be afraid of.

Time to buy my plane ticket to China.

Irena Barker, editor