Advantages of superficial education or Woe from Wit

In 2014, Ministry of Education of Ukraine announced that the Ukrainian National curriculum will be simplified. Their excuse is that the school curriculum in the country has been too difficult and it puts children off study. Incidentally, the current Ukrainian school system is still pretty much based on the Soviet educational system, that was recognised as the best in the world. Most parents are furious, of course.

However, maybe this is the wisest idea, for the sake of the state, that the new Ukrainian government has produced so far...

Look at education in more economically developed countries, for example, the United Kingdon. Although declarations about the right for education and the advantages it provides stick on the British kids' teeth, children, who arrive from Eastern Europe to the UK at the age of Key Stage 4, do much better at their study and exams than those started school in the UK at the Key Stage 1-3. I know a few Eastern European families in London (e.g., Russian, Bulgarian), whose kids study at 2 schools simultaneously to master 2 national curriculums, British and one in their first language. Those parents are willing to pay extra cost to Saturday schools or private tutors because they realise that, frankly, the education at the contemporary state and even at some independent British schools is quite superficial. Let us compare a few crucial features of British and Eastern European educational systems and find out, what exactly makes such a big difference.

TEACHING in Eastern Europe is tied to a degree: there are pedagogical universities. However, one cannot teach at a school without a degree and is very unlikely to teach a subject outside their specialism. On another hand, a graduate of a high rated university would encounter no obstacles to teaching the specialist subject without any additional training. The beginner teachers simply learn as they go, from experience and colleagues.

In contrary, in the UK, pedagogics is commonly considered far more important than deep subject knowledge. If you are an English Language graduate but fancy teaching History, you will be required to take a short subject course and, then, allowed to enter the teaching training (PGCE or Teach First). Once teachers pass for the Qualified Teaching Status (QTS), they may teach literary any subject.

I have seen musicians teaching Maths, RE teachers teaching PE and historians teaching textile. This just shows how basic the UK school curriculum is if anyone without a piece of specialist knowledge can take on teaching it. How you teach comes above what you teach. Good pedagogics is seen as the panacea that is supposed to solve any motivational difficulty therefore, a teacher does all the job and takes all the responsibility and blame. Unlike in Eastern Europe.

EXPECTATION OF RESPONSIBILITY from CHILDREN AND PARENTS comes from a very simple logic: parents are the most interested party when it comes to their kids' success. At least, they are supposed to be... Therefore, it is the parents' job to motivate a child to do well at school and the teachers' job is to deliver the subject of their specialism.

Communication between school and home in Eastern Europe is always very efficient and 'family-like'. There are occasions when a teacher would call parents in the evening to tell about seeing the child smoking outside the school. And parental love is understood as a craving to prepare a young person for life in the big world.

Therefore, parents demand a lot from their own kids and rarely spoil them or make excuses, on one hand; on another hand, parents actively search for opportunities for their children's development, e.g., extra-curricular activities. In Eastern Europe, neither parent nor teacher will tell their child 'well done' without an actual reason to be proud, and just for the sake of encouragement or motivation... because they see it as a false presence. Many of their kids feel the same when they get praised 'for nothing' in a British school. A cheesy 'well do-o-one!' would rather give a Slavonic teenager unpleasant shivers down their spine. They simply do not trust this kind of praise. 

Here is an example from a British school. A boy of A* abilities, who is a part of a mixed abilities class, gained grade B in a History mock exam. His result was still better than the rest of the class' results. As I observed him 'dancing' around with joy, I said to him ‘What are you so happy about? You should have at least A and the grade you got is rather a bad result for you!’ I saw approval on the teacher’s face but I wonder why did not she say it to the boy herself? Was this the lack of honesty, unnecessary tactfulness or she simply did not care as long as the pupil's grade was 'C or above'? Having worked in the system for 8 years, I would vote for answer number 3. 

The same false tactfulness is present in parents evenings. Under its veil, many parents do not get to understand the seriousness some of their children's learning situations or that their child could do much better, say achieve A instead of C. On another hand, in former USSR teachers communicate quite bluntly about academic achievement or lack of it as well as about behaviour, often in presence of other parents, therefore, it puts additional social pressure.

This probably sounds almost barbaric to a Western reader, however, a Russian parent rarely sees such a collective discussion of their kids' learning progress as something intrusive or abnormal. Many still find the experience painful but they take it as the pain for the sake of improvement... Obviously, sanctions are also the parents' priority. I have never heard of a popular practice of school detentions in Ukraine. Frankly, detention is more of a punishment and time investment for a teacher as it is for a child. Actually, some children admit off the record that they get themselves into detention to keep a company to their friends. 

ASSESSMENT information in Eastern Europe is also actively conveyed to families. It helps parents to be in control of their child's performance. Eastern European countries have various grading scales. In Russia, it is a 5 point system, in Ukraine, 12-points etc. Every piece of work, including homework, is being graded. Interestingly, to achieve the top grade, say 12 in Ukraine, (an equivalent to A*), one must show no less than 100% performance. This is how the high expectations are indicated and, believe you or not, there are individuals, who actually reach that 100 %. Those children carry the same attitude to study if they move to another country. 

Some Russian teachers are very inspirational at marking. They use the sense of humour, which stimulates thinking and makes it impossible to miss their comments. However, the comments are not an obligation, while any teacher would willingly give verbal feedback on pupil's or parent's request.

Termly assessment in Eastern Europe is just an average of the marks during the period of study so both, pupils and parents, can track quite clearly, where their current levels come from. Also, students are often allowed to improve their module grade by coming back after school and re-sitting the topic, for which they were graded lower than they are capable of.

The positive side of the UK marking system is its aim to help improve. This is where teachers' job becomes really hard because they are now obliged to write a meaningful comment to facilitate the improvement of every piece they mark. A teacher has between 200 and 250 pupils. Calculate the time they spend on marking with commentary, add it to planning time, various meetings and, finally, actual teaching - and you will forget your envy of the long holidays...

However, this thorough assessment style often does not really motivate to improve as much as expected, because it grades pupils only at the key points of their study. I constantly observe how a low grade for a  termly written assessment comes as a huge surprise to a child. This happens because teachers' comments about their on-going performance are focused only on progress compared to the child's current level and prior performance. They do not give a realistic 'fit in the system' picture so pupils compete only with themselves. As humane as it looks, the 'comments only' type of assessment keeps most pupils off the track, makes them too relaxed and non-competitive, especially in the middle school, when the future employment with its tough competition seems to be too far away to worry about... Then, by the time of GCSEs, children have no habit of working hard in addition to the record of under-performance and poor foundation knowledge, which leads to lower final grades. 

Another charming British vision related to assessment is the rule of 1:4. Every time a teacher criticises a pupil should be covered with four praises. They say this makes a child emotionally secure. Too secure, one would say, as teachers are trained to praise even when there is nothing really to praise for. Naturally, it makes kids think that there is nothing to worry about so they don't... until it is too late to worry. As per the Russian proverb, there is no point breathing before you die...

CURRICULUM. On their 1st  year of living in the UK, children without the knowledge of English learn nothing but English. This is what those children say. However, Eastern European kids do not miss much because the school curriculum in their countries is 2-3 years ahead compare to the British one. For example, AS Maths contains similar modules as Grade 8-9 in Ukraine, therefore, the students leave the 11th grade with a far higher level of Maths than British six-formers. Some Eastern European kids are offered to do A-level Maths in Britain without even completing GCSEs.

The curriculum in Humanities looks like one big blind spot. Incidentally, this applies to a degree level too. In February 2015, the Head of Geography at my school approached me asking to teach an introductory lesson on Russia for six groups of grade 8 students. The lady seemed to be panicking. She said that, apparently, the geography of RF has recently become a compulsory part of the UK curriculum. The problem was that none of our Geography teachers (1 - Indian, 1 - English and 1-Irish) had the slightest idea about either Russian geography or culture, or anything at all ... No exaggeration. The Geography teachers are supposed to have geography degrees so this makes me wonder, firstly, what kind of system would miss out 1/6th of the Earth's surface from a geographer's education?... And, secondly, don't these people have enough passion for their subject to use their professional curiosity and research the things that were not provided by their formal education? Well, they are the products of the same system as their students...

From my experience, many British middle-school students do not know the names and locations of the continents and oceans on the world map, no mentioning most of the countries, including the UK, where they actually live. When I asked the same Head of Geography, how could this be, she answered 'they are not required to know that'. As the English say, I beg your pardon???

Consequently, when the media talks about a cataclysm of war in some parts of the worlds, these pupils (future adults) would have no idea, where the places are. However, they would nod and swallow whatever they have been fed. One US official said in 2013 that, 'if Russia attacks Belarus, the US would send their ships to help'. Does not matter that Belarus has no sea coast… It appears, when the Hugh Grant's character (an independent school and Cambridge graduate) said that Bridgit Jones (most likely, a state school in London and an average-rated uni) does not know, where Germany is, he could be summarising something very typical in the real society...

The British History curriculum is a plane reminiscent of a patchwork quilt. Very few schools teach History in chronological order like it is normally being done in Eastern Europe. Instead, a random or important from the Head's of Department point of view epoch is looked at in an isolated manner and, then, the children are usually asked something like whose side would they take, what was the life in trenches like or, only at the GCSE and higher levels, which factor was most important for the beginning of WW1. On the last question, a discussion with a piece of evidence is usually required but even then a student may get away with minimal knowledge because they are usually given a few sources in the exam paper to analyse. They just need to be able to infer the correct quotes.

The biggest disadvantage (or advantage?) of such a 'patchwork' History curriculum: it does not allow students (who are the future adults and voters) make connections or draw parallels with other historical events that preceded or followed. The fact that the history has a spiral development (in other words, it tends to repeat itself at new levels) is totally out of most of the British people's sight, which stops them from making their own prognoses about future developments while teaching to make amateur judgments. One could call the majority of the UK population 'historically short-sighted'...

...While in Eastern Europe History is taught in strictly chronological order, even though its concepts have changed significantly in the last 30 years... Actually, conceptualism rather than factionalism is one big negative side of the Eastern European History curriculum.

Language and Literature in Eastern Europe are two separate subjects. In the (native) language lessons they teach to use the language of their country. In the Literature lessons, kids read and learn to think outside the box of a 'naïve realism'. Let's say that, in case of studying 'Crime and Punishment', the English curriculum would probably ask, how would a pupil feel in the criminal's shoes (a very common task is to write a diary entry as the main character); while the Russian curriculum would question what historical/economic changes in the country have made the conflict of the main character so significant in the eyes of the writer... Which question implies more analytical thinking and knowledge? Which question prompts more insight into the bigger world? ...

FOCUS. The range of compulsory GCSE subjects in the UK is extremely narrow. There are only 3 core subjects: English, Maths and Science. If we split Science into Physics, Chemistry and Biology, it will make 5 subjects. Four out of 5 require the understanding of a process on the theoretical and practical level and do not require much discussion or cultural background. History, Geography and Religious Education are the subjects that provide an individual with a bulk of the general knowledge. By early exclusion those subjects from the core curriculum, the UK government directs the country's society to the route of ignorance and common thinking. Moreover, when it comes to grades 12 and 13, the standard choice of only 3 subjects narrows the young people's outlook even further.

The main aim of most schools is a high rate of A* - C grades, therefore many schools insist that children without particular humanitarian abilities do not choose History, Economics, Geography, RE (in some schools) or Philosophy. So the majority are free to drop, say, History after Year 9 or Year 8, once and forever.  Also, because most children will not study History or Geography ‘seriously’ (i.e. they would not need to sit exams), the subject departments do not really work too hard on teaching or pushing the middle school (grades 7-9) to the best of their abilities. They rather save the effort of teaching the selected groups ‘properly’ at the GCSE level. 

MEMORY OR THINKING? The philosophy of contemporary UK education proclaims the priority of thinking skills over memory and factual knowledge. The background (or excuse) for this is that knowledge is not necessary and proves quite stressful for children, when they are required to learn elements of the curriculum, such as poetry, historical facts or dates or scientific laws, by heart. Especially in Humanities.

The old system based on memorising is heavily criticised for the pressure it used to put on a child’s memory.  They say, most of the facts are not needed in the future so it is a waste of time and effort to memorise them. Besides, one does not need to keep a lot in one’s memory because one can find anything on the Internet these days. 

So, one should be able to discuss a topic but does not have to remember it. The British children learn to get away with 'just thinking' very quickly because they know that, whatever nonsense they spit out, the teacher would have to say 'good try' and 'well done for trying' to encourage them. After this praise, it becomes very difficult to add that, actually, the child, who just 'tried', is lacking the actual knowledge. I pointed this out to one boy, 13 when he expressed his un-educated guess - and he claimed that I was RUDE to him! From when a teacher telling a pupil about his lack of knowledge is considered rude?

Thinking skills are said to be much more important so it's basically not how many facts you know but how much you can say about the facts... Which facts? The ones that you are not aware of?

There has never been a more false statement for the benefit of education than this. As if the curriculum writers are not familiar with the anatomy of Central Nervous System; as if they did not realise that, the more one memorises the more connections between neurons are being created in the human brain. And the more connections are there, the better the speed and quality of thinking process are. Or, do they base on the statement of Sir Conan Doyle's fictional character's idea that the brain is like an empty loft that should not be cluttered up unnecessarily?

Here is the truth. A human brain is NOT A SHELF to fill – it is a tree that needs to be fed with quality knowledge in order to grow and develop. In plain words, the less advanced material one’s brain retains, the less stimulus it provides for thinking. Even in the '12 marks' type of questions on History and Literature, British young people are asked to discuss some provided extract rather than use their knowledge so one almost can get a decent grade without having any expertise in the subject of the examination. I am hardly exaggerating. The kids are trained to make a short-sighted judgment based on minimum information and confidently (ignorantly?) consider it a norm.

Not mentioning the role of memory in studying a foreign language, which, despite all the possible optimisations made by creative pedagogies, will always remain central.

If we really wish our children well, then, instead of dismissing the memorising exercise from their education, we should select exciting things for them to memorise at their level. What's bad in being able to quote a favourite Shakespeare's sonnet to one's girlfriend years after one left the high school, no matter what profession he has chosen?

Developing independent learning skills, especially research is closely related to developing memory. Yes, anyone can find anything online now. So, why the 'memory-trained' Eastern European kids take more initiative at online research for extra information? A huge number of children in the UK struggle to put information in their own words. Partially this happens because the memory is underdeveloped and they have to refer to their source even after they have read it.

In former Soviet countries, the classroom teachers still practice assessment of verbal answers. Memorising poetry is a big part of the school curriculum, infant, primary and secondary. Children of a nursery age receive a lot of praise for telling Christmas and other occasional celebrations poems by heart. Some parents care to help their kids to memorise quite long pieces.

In addition, in 11th grade at Eastern European examination essays the students are not given anthology for analysing poetry because they are supposed to know it by heart. For controlled assessments in the British style, those students, who have been equipped with good memory skills, could simply memorise essays they have prepared in advance. This is why, in Eastern Europe, the students are never given a title for their essays, therefore, they are forced to think there and then, which is far more of a challenge. Believe you or not, the majority manage just fine.

APPROACH TO LITERACY and NUMERACY. I have previously written about underdeveloped analytical skills and understanding of the language in the English curriculum (see the post 'Dyslexia or helpless teaching?'). There is a minimum of morphological and syntactical analysis for the language – this is why some children arrive at a high school without reading or writing skills relevant to their age and being labelled as ‘partially dyslexic’. Further, in high school, many kids mix up, for example, words 'curious' and 'curiosity' simply because they were not taught how to identify parts of speech. This naturally leads to difficulties at composing a grammatically correct sentence.

In Maths, regular challenging brain-breakers is the best way to develop thinking skills and flexibility. However, these are rather an exception in either primary and secondary UK pedagogy. If kids are supposed to enjoy their education, brain breakers could be the perfect answer, then, why is it not being used?... British children are not taught to enjoy pure intellectual challenges and, eventually, they find pretty basic GCSE Maths curriculum hard.

SECURING KNOWLEDGE and HOMEWORK. The amount of homework in a British state school is pathetic. While homework is crucial for mastering such subjects as Maths and a Foreign Language; firstly, because a learner needs to practice a new skill in order to gain confidence in using it; secondly, because, whatever they learn in the lesson, os only retained in short-term memory and it is the repetition at home, alone, that moves the new material into the long-term memory.

How long an average British child of grade 7 or 8 spends a day ensuring the material they learned in their lessons (because this is what the homework is really for)? From my conversations with students, I would say 30 minutes (this might be 1 hour on some days and none on other days). Compared to kids in Eastern Europe, where children of the same age spend around 2 hours on homework each day. This still does not disturb them to attend after-school clubs more actively than British children do.

The structure of modules, especially in Maths and science, often reminds kaleidoscope. A teacher explains a new topic, gives an exercise in the same lesson and one homework a week. After that, they move to a new topic, that is completely disconnected with the previous one so the students cannot even use the previous material for understanding the new one.

This kind of structuring gives pupils no chance to really achieve ownership of their knowledge. The result – when it comes to revision in grades 10 and 11, students see the modules from earlier years as something completely new and they have to learn them again, practically from scratch. So, what was the point of middle school then? This gives an impression of going in circles without any chance of claiming a higher level unless you are naturally gifted at Maths. 

DISCIPLINE. the behaviour in classrooms is what shocks an Eastern European child at a British school more than anything else. Whatever poor behaviour they had experienced or even carried out back home, it still looks worse here. The levels of noise in a British classroom, especially during the 'independent' or 'group' work get really unhealthy and one wonders, how any kind of learning can be done in such an environment. There are noisy groups in Eastern Europe too, of course, however, this noise factor is clearly considered an issue because if stops kids from focusing, therefore, the issue is being dealt with...

...Which is not the case in the UK. Independent work means that kids are given questions on a worksheet or, possibly, more interactive task, during which the teacher's involvement is a minimum. A learning support assistant (if there is one) is meant to be pro-active at this particular stage - and, having worked in this role, I realised how many children use this 'independent task' simply to chat with their friends or copy from them rather than getting involved in a quality learning process. This 'independent' work is almost never being graded so 'what's the point of doing it?' 

Group work is another charming standard of British pedagogy. Once upon time, employers realised that, when young people begin their careers, they are lacking team skills due to the generally individualistic Western values. This affects business. Not good. So, the group principle of learning is supposed to cover this gap...

And in reality?

During a year, when I supported a GCSE Geography class, I kept pointing to the teacher at one girl, who behaved well sticking with her friends. I was quite sure that she had no clue about the subject. The teacher, in turn, kept saying that the girl's exercise book looks ok, all work has been completed etc. 

Eventually, when it came to controlled assessment, mock exam and other practices in the exam condition, where she could not rely on her friends, the child was getting straight U and ended up being moved down to the Foundation level. Note that the pupil was from a working-class Indian background, where 'if the teacher says 'it's ok', then, 'it's ok' so the positive marking comments would give the girl enough confidence to 'blackout' the fact that she actually does not know the subject at all. 

Unfortunately, this happens rather too often... Being directed to work as a group, pupils read into this situation differently. Some greatly benefit by taking on all the responsibility, while others only learn to hide behind their friends' back and exploit their friends' efforts. Maybe this can also be treated as a life skill, however, the actual knowledge is severely affected. 

In contrary, the Slavonic mentality is based on collectivism, therefore working with others is not an issue in Eastern Europe. There, pupils face the teacher in the classroom, learn from the teacher and take responsibility only for their own learning, although in some places they ask for help their friends and give it to each other voluntary, after school, and without being prompted by teachers. In addition, those kids are usually involved in some extra-curricular activities, where they exercise their teaming skills without compromising their own knowledge.

I could continue examples forever but, hopefully, I managed to demonstrate why and how Eastern European children are more motivated and better prepared academically - the only thing that matters in order to progress in education.

HERE IS MY BIG QUESTION. How does the UK with such a superficial general education has such a highly developed economy and why Russia and other Eastern European countries suffer from on-going political and economic unrest for decades, despite the fact that the level of teaching and learning is much higher in Eastern Europe? Can it be a woe from wit?

Alexander Griboedov, a Russian writer of the early 19th century, was exiled for his ideas of freedom and Enlightening and, incidentally, for writing a sarcastic comedy about contemporary to him social values. In a nutshell, Woe from Wit (Text in English. Text in Russian. The play in Russian) is about a young man Chatsky, who comes back to Russia after 3 years of travelling around Europe (just after the reign of Katherine the Great in Russia, which was also the period after the French Revolution). Chatsky brings the ideas of Enlightening, education, and freedom in the Russian society of fashionable but rather superficial education and the high importance of rigid high society rules, with which each member is expected to comply to avoid a scandal. Chatsky ends up being declared a madman and not being able to fit in the society, to which a critically thinking individual presents a threat.