Nanjing has a population of over 8 million people and this is growing. The shift from the 'one child' law in China to the 'two child' one has brought massive challenges to the education system there, not to mention the impact of massive industrial and commercial growth which puts even more pressure on their cities and schools. Our happy smiling visitors would be returning to China this weekend to complete their final year of studies before commencing their careers as primary school teachers.
In their district children attend Kindergarten until they are about 6 or 7 years old. Most pre school education is unfunded, so parents are required to pay for this themselves. The curriculum in the Kindergarten is very much based on play and outdoor learning. They then begin primary school and will find themselves in classes of between 40 and 50 pupils. From Grade1 they focus on the key areas of Chinese language, Maths, Science and English language. All of our visitors spoke very good English, which was in sharp contrast to our ability to speak Chinese! School starts at 7.30am and finishes around 3.00pm, with a lunchtime of 1.5 hours.
These students were guests of Edinburgh University, who thought it would be interesting for them to not only see a Scottish primary school, but to also hear about our journey of professional development through practitioner enquiry. They were obviously pleased, and very comfortable, as they toured the school and classes in the morning, even though their average age was around 21. They were guided by our P7 pupils, who they quickly put at ease, and they made natural connections with pupils and staff throughout the school. We created time to bring them together with all the staff over tea and coffee, and lots of sharing of interesting professional, and cultural information took place in both directions.
After lunch myself and Dr Gillian Robinson from Edinburgh University talked them through our journey with practitioner enquiry. The connection here was not so strong. Whilst some of the students obviously had experience with research, and research methods, and some had heard of and understood the concept of 'Action Research', I think most struggled as I tried to explain the approach we had been taking. I feel this was because of two main reasons. The first was related to where they were in their journey of teacher professional development, and the second was because of the culture and norms that pertain in their education system and country. I was reminded of this when I spoke to the leader about Twitter, which of course they don't have access to. Mind you, the fact that I am a Geordie with a mixture of that, Mancunian and Scottish accents might also have been another contributing factor!
Wai, the group leader, explained that with classes of 40 to 50 children, and a curriculum that was very directive, the young teachers would find it very difficult to engage with the type of practitioner research approaches we have been using for many years. 'They will be very busy', she offered by way of explanation. Seems that this is a common issue for education systems everywhere. I had explained that as a school leader one of my key roles was to support staff to continue to grow and develop throughout their careers, and that we too were very busy. What we don't do enough of at times, is to step back from all the busyness and ask what is the impact for learners and teachers? But of course, context is key. We all have to work within a national, local and individual contexts that are different and, just as I know you couldn't lift what we have been doing and drop it into another school and get the same results, so it is with what works across different systems. I finished my chat with the young educators by pointing out they were about to join the best profession in the world. I told them I still love my job and there is not a day I don't look forward to coming in to school as I get to work with and support some fabulous people. I wished them well in their own careers and hoped they enjoyed their chosen career as much as I have.
They were an absolute delight to have in the school, and their enthusiasm and commitment was palpable. I thank them for visiting and reminding myself and colleagues about the crucial importance of context at all levels. Sometimes we can operate in a bubble of isolation, whether this be in classroom, school or system, and we need to remind ourselves to break out of that regularly to really see and understand the bigger picture. To develop real empathy and understanding of different positions we really do need to walk in other's shoes and to see ourselves as others see us. collaboration and sharing stories at all levels remain powerful tools for developing understanding and improving practice everywhere.