Three things UK schools can learn from East Asia. Hint – they’re not what you think

In my last post I looked at the dangers of UK media and policymakers’ championing of the East Asian educational model, and mentioned some of the drawbacks to a system that values high-stakes summative examinations over all  else.

In this post, I’m looking at the positives we can take from the East Asian approach – again, I’m focussing on my time teaching ESL in Korea but my points also apply broadly to many other countries in the region.

Disclaimer: I am not for a second suggesting we adopt the following principles exactly as they exist in Korea – our cultural contexts are too far apart for that. However, I think they may offer some interesting food for thought and could be worked into the British context to our benefit.

  1. Attract the Best

Once a highly respected profession, the status of teaching has taken a huge knock over the last couple of decades. As job conditions have worsened, media attacks on the teachers have become de rigeur. Add to the mix the fact that salaries pale in comparison next to alternative professions and even a die-hard bleeding heart like me can see the attraction of Anything But Teaching.

To address the resultant drop in young people going into teaching, routes into teaching have diversified. In addition to the traditional PGCE, prospective teachers can choose School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT), the controversial Teach First or – a new addition since 2012 – School Direct, which enables graduates in shortage subjects to apply directly to a school and join the teaching team immediately. In spite of this, the dropout rate continues to skyrocket, currently sitting at around a third within the first five years.

In Korea, by contrast, education is held in high esteem as the principal route out of the devastation of the Korean War. Teaching also commands a pay packet way above the OECD average at senior level.  Primary teachers must all train at a select number of institutions and whereas Secondary teachers have more varied options for training, the huge numbers vying to get into the profession mean that schools can afford to be selective.These are just a few of the reasons why teaching is a highly respected profession, is extremely competitive to get into, and has unspurprisingly high retention rates.

2. Let them do their job

Many of the graduates currently rejecting teaching will themselves have come through a State system that has progressively strangled much of the joy out of teaching and learning via a series of ever-changing targets and ever-narrower assessments for both students and teachers.

Over in Korea, although students labour under the yoke of the standardised test, teachers have a much higher level of autonomy – exactly as you would expect of a trained professional. Though my methods (Communicative Language Teaching) differed from my Korean colleagues’, I was largely given free rein in the classroom which allowed me to be vastly more creative, to try out new approaches, and to pick myself up and carry on when they failed. I genuinely believe my teaching improved more during that year than any other as a result.

3. Let them be human!

The real work of teaching lies not in subject knowledge, theory of pedagogy or target-meeting. That’s not to dismiss the value or challenges inherent to these, but any teacher will tell you that the real meat of the job is in building human relationships. Mainly, what this looks like is an attempt to establish mutual trust and respect between yourself and a child in order to get them to allow you to teach them. In the UK, as in much of the Western world, this is a tough call. We are used to compartmentalising our lives – professional v personal; work v home – and we are taught that there are strict limits on how far we should interfere even in our families’ lives and decisions, let alone our students’. Students come to relationships with teachers from the same perspective, making any attempts at trust-building a tricksy balancing act at the best of times, and that’s before coming to students who have additional needs.

While the Korean system is far more academically standardised than our own, and far more stressful in some respects, I observed and was part of pastoral work that I could not have done in the UK simply because we conceptualise the teacher-student relationship so very differently. While Eurocentric depictions of East Asian teachers tend to focus on authoritarian figures, this is only one side of the story: there is a long history of teachers being considered ‘second parents’, with students encouraged to rely on, and form close personal relationships with, them. At first, this was a huge culture shock: when my colleagues blithely commented that their students saw them as family, urged me to take a struggling student for coffee in town to get to the bottom of their troubles, or wondered why I hadn’t accepted my class’ Facebook friend requests, my Safeguarding alarm bells went doolally. And while – again – I wouldn’t recommend following this model to the letter, it made me consider how hard it is in the UK for teachers to break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’, and how good it felt to be supported in helping my students as whole people in this way.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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