A New Way of Reading

I knew I had to read this book when I heard Doug Lemov endorsing it. Reader, Come Home sells itself as a portrayal of the reading state of the nation. It is really about the state of humanity.

The author points out that the Ancient Greeks were concerned that rising literacy would fundamentally change people’s ability to remember, and that they weren’t wrong: the rise of reading did change the way our brains worked, making memory weaker, and remarkably rapidly. So today, with the rise in digital devices, both the way we read and the way our minds work has shifted. But are we worried about the right things this time? Our fears seem centred around the fact that more children (and adults, truth be told) are not reading… But they are.

In fact, we are reading more than ever before: the author quotes studies that reveal we are reading around 100,000 words a day now. That’s a short novel, every single day. But what should be cause for celebration is in fact cause for concern, because the way we are reading is so dramatically different.

Wolf quotes a memorable speech by Barack Obama where he said that information has become ‘entertainment rather than empowerment.’ Moreover, our reading is ‘chopblock,’ not continuous, and situated within a technological world where ‘cognitive overload’ is ubiquitous. To take in all this information, ‘skimming’ has become ‘the new normal.’ We focus on the surface rather than digging deeper. And this has a profound impact on the way we process information.

I have often felt I read too much fiction; indeed, my aim this year was explicitly to read more non-fiction. That was before Wolf articulated to me (and I do feel this is personal, as she writes the book explicitly as letters to the reader) the benefits of fiction. For Wolf, we understand others and can show compassion and empathy through reading. Reading connects divergent cultures, so we have a more in-depth understanding of those different to us.

But this only happens when we read with ‘close attention.’ This kind of deep reading requires ‘analogical reasoning’ and ‘inference’ to uncover its many layers. In praise of beautiful prose, Wolf reminds us that beauty in words holds our attention so we focus on what lies deeper.

Yet in the modern world, the prevalence of digital devices results in ‘continuous partial attention’: we live in a ‘world of distraction’. This is not conducive to deep thinking. As well as cycling through the argument, familiar to readers of Lemov and Murphy and Willingham, that knowledge is crucial for deep reading, and that critical thought ‘never just happens,’ the author goes on to explore the impact on children of this way of processing words.

Boredom in children is normal. But ‘post-digital’ boredom is a different kind altogether. Wolf says that this kind of boredom, rather than provoking creativity as the former can, ‘de-animates’ children. The constant stimulation of the screen prevents them from experiencing true, tranquil tedium.

We know from our own adult lived experience how addictive devices are; studies abound to support this, but are barely needed. Of course children are much more vulnerable to this. And when they are developing their cognitive abilities, this has a devastating impact. The multiple stimulants on devices split children’s attention, and studies show that texts read on devices compared with traditional paper lead to weaker comprehension even if no other applications are running. The mere expectation that the device will have multiple purposes diverts their attention, ability to focus, and thus weakens their ability to understand what they are reading.

Moreover, the information overload of our reading society makes it much harder for children to build background knowledge. With so much information and so little time to process it, this threatens the development of children’s attentions and working memories.

There is so much more in this book, and I would urge everyone human to read it. It urged me to reflect on how I feel when I read a novel compared with how I feel when I read Buzzfeed. The guilt I used to feel for losing myself in a novel will be banished from my life. Instead, it will be my phone that I must lock away; my laptop I must periodically lose. Fiction is vital.

Wolf asks: ‘What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different?… It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.’ Far from an optional extra, deep reading is the stuff of life itself.

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Differentiation

The following post is a staff CPD session run at my school, The Ebbsfleet Academy, by our incredible Director of Learning for English, Briony Thomas. Briony, who eschews social media, has kindly allowed me to publish her work on this blog. I think her advice is invaluable to teachers, and a good reminder of all the excellent practice that happens in schools beyond Twitter!

I used to think that differentiation meant creating a whole range of fancy resources for a lesson…perhaps three different handouts to match my colour coded lesson objectives/outcomes of ‘All, Most, Some’ or ‘Good, Great, Outstanding’…

Four years into my teaching career, and my approach to differentiation has completely changed.

Now I am very wary of providing differentiated resources. Making individualised handouts is exceptionally time-consuming and for that reason, an unsustainable burden on your time (your work-life balance matters!). Instead, in my opinion, differentiation should be more fluid; based on addressing the misconceptions of specific students when they arise. Yes, you should plan how you will differentiate a task if you need to; but do not provide scaffolding until you know a student really needs it. You don’t want to assume that a student needs more help than they really do!

Problem 1: Task time

Students finish tasks at different times. Some speed through to the finish and then sit around twiddling their thumbs and distracting other students. Others work at a snail’s pace and can also lack resilience, give up and resort to distracting others too.

Solutions

Set a basic task completion expectation: “At the end of these four minutes, I expect everyone to have completed at least questions 1-3.”

Reward those who complete the task fully: “At the end of these four minutes, if you have exceeded my expectation and completed questions 1-5 to the best of your ability (crucial if you don’t want them to rush for sake of it!), then you will be rewarded with a merit.”

Make sure you always include a challenge that requires a longer answer to stretch your high ability students and ask them to share their responses with the class at the end (this can be their reward in addition to the merit they have already earned).

During the set time limit, give them frequent reminders of the time they have left and ask for hands up when they have completed certain questions to gauge the overall speed of the class and adjust your timings if you need to (they rarely notice when 7 minutes becomes 10…).

Problem 2: Teacher time

Certain students find it very difficult to get started or keep going without any direct teacher input, but you can’t be in more than one place at once.

Solutions

Group your most needy students at the very front of the classroom so they always feel like they are your priority. After explaining the task to the rest of the class, you can give a quieter, more focused second round of instruction to this group.

I know this arrangement isn’t always possible in different classrooms, especially when you have to consider behavioural concerns, so another way of doing this is to have mixed ability pairs (I would avoid larger group work generally as it is far too easy for students to be off task without you realising). For example, split your pairs into As (higher ability) and Bs (lower ability). After giving your instructions to the class, ask the As to explain the task again to the Bs. You could vary this by asking Bs to ask As any questions they still have about the task or by asking Bs to explain the task to As and getting the As to check if they understood it correctly. You want to vary it so as far as possible the students aren’t aware why they are either A or B.

If a student is consistently needy during a task and you are sure that they have understood the instructions but are just lacking confidence, then remind them of the hypercorrection effect, whereby if they have a go at a task and get it wrong, they are far more likely to remember the right answer next time than if they didn’t attempt the question at all. If this problem is more widespread across the class you can have a ‘no hands up’ time period for 5 minutes or so and encourage them to ‘save’ their questions by writing them down, by which point they might have figured out the answer or find it easier to just give the task a go anyway.

Rather than having a challenge ‘question,’ make the challenge task to become a class expert who acts like the teacher would and circulates the class helping those with their hands up.

Problem 3: Simplifying

You are trying to teach the class something really complex that you know they are going to struggle with but you’re unsure to simplify it.

Solutions

As experts ourselves, we can often forget how complex certain concepts are for our students to understand. When planning to introduce a new concept, think about all the different parts of knowledge students will need to know to understand it and separate this knowledge into manageable chunks of learning. A basic formula is to activate the students’ prior knowledge. For instance, before reading Oliver Twist with a class, they need to have a good understanding of Victorian London. Starting with an open question like: ‘what are cities like?’ is attemptable for everyone in the class. You don’t want any child to read the first question and think, ‘I can’t do that’. It will immediately disengage them from the beginning and it can be really hard to get them out of that negative mindset. From this starting point, you can then gradually make the questions more difficult, for example moving to: ‘What do you already know about London?’ to ‘How do you think London might have been different in the Victorian era?’

Multiple choice questions followed by choral answering (whole class answers A, B or C together) can be a really useful way of ensuring that all students feel confident enough to participate. You can also correct misconceptions immediately by asking those students who answered correctly to explain how they came to the right answer without making it clear which students got the answer wrong in the first place. As students are far happier to take a guess with multiple choice questions, this can also be a great way of making use of the hypercorrection effect explained earlier.

Problem 4: The word gap

With an increasing number of EAL students and with a high percentage of students who come from ‘word poor’ backgrounds, sometimes their lack of vocabulary can seem like an insurmountable burden.

Solution

The word-gap is such a huge problem that it is often the reason why there is such an apparent disparity between students in your class.  To address this problem head on, in your planning, it is so important to decide which words they are likely to find problematic. In the lesson you can gloss over the meanings of these words quickly so they do not provide a barrier to your students later on. For instance, “‘The west end of London was particularly prosperous’, I say you say ‘prosperous’. Prosperous means wealthy and successful. What does prosperous mean?” Keep these definitions as short and simple as possible. Often dictionaries use words in their definitions that are far too complex for our students to understand. To differentiate for students who already have broader vocabularies, you can use them as your ‘human dictionaries’ to provide these definitions themselves as you go along. This is a handy habit to get into when you are talking to the class to as well as reading with them because again, the most important thing when setting a task is to make sure they understand your instructions.

For words that they need to understand in more depth, providing images to illustrate their meaning can be really useful. This can allow students with already broad vocabularies to deepen their knowledge of a word by seeing how it could be applied in different contexts as well as making the lesson more accessible for EAL and word poor students who could really benefit from a visual aid.

Problem 5: Writing

You have students who can verbalise their answers clearly but really struggle to get their thoughts down on paper.

Solutions

Writing scaffolds are essential for a mixed ability class. You can write these up on the board during the lesson when the need arises and signpost only the students you want to use them, to make use of them. Providing sentence starters is a great way of helping those who need an extra hand to get started e.g. ‘The daughter of Henry VIII was…’

When you want students to provide a longer, more detailed response ‘because/but/so’ can be a really useful way of encouraging them to develop their explanations. E.g. ‘Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon because…Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon but…Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon so…’

Providing sentences or paragraphs with missing words ensures that all students will put pen to paper. They can even leave the gaps blank initially and then fill these in later when they’ve had a chance to think about them. Then, when you go through these answers with the class, they can complete any missing words in green pen.

To stretch the high ability, you can challenge them to use words from their knowledge organiser to improve their vocabulary. This is an extension that can be pretty much be used whenever they do extended writing.

The human side

I haven’t written for a while. It’s always busy at the start of the school year, but it has not been that busy, and it is suddenly October. But I had to write about what happened on Thursday.

Our school population is changing, and rapidly. At the end of last year, we began to have an influx of in-year admissions, with a heavy bias towards those for whom English is an additional language. That trend has intensified this term. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented at my school, and we are moving rapidly to put in place a more comprehensive programme for EAL learners. But it is embryonic, so I won’t write about it now. I want to write about the human side of EAL.

I want to write about G. G is new to year 7. Two days new. I noticed him first on Tuesday, where he was sitting at the back of our ‘Aspire to Oxbridge’ assembly with this sort of blank look on his face. Entirely still from the tummy up. Legs dancing on the floor ceaselessly from the tummy down. I saw him on Wednesday, when he was late in, and I mimed PE for him before taking him to the class, much to the hilarity of the reception staff. I’ve seen him in lessons, sitting happily compliant, his legs a constant dance below the table, clearly at sea. It is so hard for G.

At lunch today, I saw him during my canteen duty. He was eating alone, but with others – we make our students fill every gap, so no one is ever sitting alone. As usual, those legs were going. I said hello and he replied, merrily, before leaving. He returned ten minutes later.

A lot can happen in a school canteen within ten minutes. For one, I’d spotted a lull and started eating my own lunch in the same spot G had eaten in, so I was right there when he lolloped back to his place. I had a front row seat. And I’ve never seen anything like it: he crumpled in two, and wept. He convulsed with heaving sobs. The boys behind him turned to see what the noise was. I gave them my ‘look.’

‘What’s wrong G?’ but he couldn’t understand me; or if he could, he couldn’t tell me. The year 7 to G’s right clocked it faster: ‘he’s lost his bag. He’s come back to look for it, and it’s gone.’

I didn’t know what to do. I got G to sit down, and he wept on the table.

‘Romanian?’ I guessed. G did not look up. ‘Romanian?’ I prodded further. He looked up and nodded. I used the radio to locate a Romanian-speaking student I knew of on the playground, who came in and spoke to G. Two sentences. Then the student turned to me: ‘he’s not Romanian. He doesn’t understand me.’

But the young helpful man continued to speak to G, and then turned to me. ‘He’s Bulgarian, Miss.’ A few more calls on the radio, and we had a native Bulgarian before G, who had stopped crying, but was still visibly distressed. It hits me in a wave: this goes beyond his bag. It’s the fear he has lost something he will never get back, compiled with the fear of all these strangers in a strange place speaking a strange language.

‘Miss! I don’t even remember Bulgarian! Is so long since I’m there!’ said my native Bulgarian, whose patchy grammar belies his actual home language situation. I suspect Bulgarian may be one of many languages he speaks.

As my so-called Bulgarian tried to talk to G, G suddenly broke into a wide smile. He was laughing. I don’t know what about – was it the old Bulgarian’s broken language? Or was he joking in the language? I have no idea what was happening.

‘Tell him we will find his bag! Tell him not to worry!’ I pressed.

‘Miss, Miss, I can’t even remember “find,”’ my helper protested. ‘Use Ms C’s phone. Use Google translate.’ I do; tell him: G, don’t worry, we will find it. I send him away with his two helpers.

And then comes H, another year 7.

‘Miss! Miss! I found G’s bag!’ Because what had happened? K, the student sitting next to G, had noticed G had left his bag, and had picked it up to give it to him. This has all stemmed from an attempt at kindness.

We move rapidly to the playground to locate G, and I trust I know where he will be. And it is so. He is sandwiched on the bench where my Romanian and my old Bulgarian sit every lunchtime. All are laughing. He grabs the bag with such glee, without even the words to thank his helper.

That afternoon, I pen an email to his father. I write that G was upset about his bag, but that he found it. I write that I hope he is ok, and that he should let me know if there is anything else I can do to support his son. I then stick the whole thing into Google translate and press send.

Twenty minutes later comes the reply:

‘I will talk with him when he gets home. I’m trying to speak English with him at home so he can learn quicker. And thank you so much for your email that was very kind of you trying email me in Bulgarian. Next time you can just email me in English.’

Non-Violent Communication

When a close friend of mine who works in the prison service told me to read this book, she caveated it with saying: ‘I know what you’re thinking. But it’s actually really good.’

The name alone sent shivers down my spine, let alone the tag-line: ‘if “violent” means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate could indeed be called “violent” communication.’

My friend told me that some prison officers use this technique with their most challenging inmates with amazing success, though, so I thought – why not have a read? If nothing else, I always try to engage with what I disagree with to ensure I keep an open mind. Plus, at my current school, we have a short-term programme of alternative provision (run on-site) for children at risk of permanent exclusion. I thought this could be a good route in to re-engaging those children with school.

Whilst I couldn’t claim to agree with everything in the book, there was a surprising amount I found incredibly helpful, and perhaps applicable even beyond our alternative provision. The foundational idea behind the book – which is, in my view, impossible to argue with – is this: treat everyone with respect. To do this, we must resist the urge to respond to others in anger or upset. When we hear something that upsets us, instead of reacting we have to ask: what is this person needing that they are lacking now?

In order to practice non-violent communication, there are four basic steps:

  • Observe what is happening in the situation;
  • Explain how this makes us feel;
  • Ask what needs of ours are connected to the feelings identified;
  • Make a specific request of the other person.

For a full explanation of the method, you really need to read the whole book. The part that seems least obvious to me, however, was step three: needs. According to Rosenberg, the root of our feelings is in our unmet needs. We need to ask: ‘what does this person need? What would they like to request in relation to those needs?’ We have to accept full responsibility for our own intentions and actions, but not for the feelings of others. We are completely responsible for our feelings and reactions, as illustrated by this eminently relatable anecdote: ‘if someone arrives late for an appointment and we need reassurance that she cares about us, we may feel hurt. If, instead, our need is to spend time purposefully and constructively, we may feel frustrated. But if our need is for thirty minutes of quiet solitude, we may be grateful for her tardiness and feel pleased. Thus, it is not the behaviour of the other person but our own need that causes our feeling.’

Another central theme of this book is empathy: ‘empathy… requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message.’ Rosenberg gives example phrases for tricky situations, like: ‘I’m frustrated because I’d like to be clearer about what you are referring to. Would you be willing to tell me what I’ve done that leads you to see me in this way?’ For the author, ‘Self-expression becomes easier after we empathise with others, because we will then have touched their humanness and realised the common qualities we share. The more we connect with the feelings and needs behind their words, the less frightening it is to open up to other people.’

I still believe that for a large institution like a school to work, we need sanctions that are enforced fairly and predictably. Children must know that their actions have consequences.

For all children, sanctions can be given with love. We must reiterate to children that we are showing them their actions have consequences because we love them enough to care about their future, and to want them to change their behaviour to have a great future. I have never worked at a school where sanctions have been implemented without this philosophy, but I think in every school every teacher has, at least on some occasion, failed to be explicit enough about the love behind the sanction. We could all get better at this.

But what I am increasingly coming to see is that for the very most challenging students, sanctions with love are not enough. Our children at risk of permanent exclusion are impervious to sanctions. They simply do not seem to care what happens as a result of their behaviour. Yes, these children need to be apart from the mainstream, at least for a short period of time, because they need something more and something different to reorientate their mindset. And I do think that this method, which undoubtedly will take much more time and effort with each individual case, sounds extremely promising in helping these children feel understood, cared for and listened to. At this point, our only hope is that they choose to change their behaviour. Sanctions haven’t worked – what comes next?

Glass Ceilings

I’ve mentioned before: Glass Ceilings is my favourite education read so far this year. And that’s not because I agree with every page, because I don’t. The book is inspiring and thought-provoking in equal measure.

When I started teaching, a film came out called Waiting for Superman. Again, I don’t agree with everything in it – but I still think it is a superb documentary. Both that film and this book showcase American charter schools, fighting against unthinkable odds to send children from the poorest backgrounds to the best universities. In 2013, I got to visit Chicago and see some of these charter schools in action, and it profoundly changed what I believed was possible in education. I had always said: ‘all children can go to university,’ but I would never have had the gumption to say, as a classroom teacher, leader, or (I hope eventually) headteacher, ‘all these children in front of me now will go to university.’

The charter schools forge the path for us: they are beacons of hope, and reminders that we could and should do better. I’m not aware of a UK school serving a deprived community that has yet managed to admit 100% of its pupils to a university, and yet schools like this do exist stateside. Statistically speaking, they are vanishingly rare, and yet their very existence should shock us into believing that we can do better.

What Hall’s book does so beautifully is to look at what those schools are doing, and what we can learn from them. An interesting early thread for Hall is how traditional the teaching was when he visited the charter schools: he reports being shocked by the ‘didactic’ focus, along with the ‘amazing gains in outcomes.’ Interesting, when I visited charter schools – though I was fully mired in progressive practices myself – the classrooms simply seemed normal to me. I think the length of my teaching experience (then just 2 years) was outweighed by my own fortunate experience as a student in a traditional private school.

Hall’s take-aways from these visits, and his application of these to his own British context, makes for helpful reading: he saw relationships forming the cornerstone of strong behaviour systems, a whole-school insistence on ‘whole sentence answers’ supporting literacy, and, after meeting Rafe Esquith, a belief that what all children need is a ‘content-rich knowledge based curriculum.’ Hall’s personal story is told in a compelling narrative, oozing humility as it inspires.

But what this book really made me think of was that education is, in the end, about our values. After I finished this book, I revisited and edited some of the things I had written when I first became a senior leader in a school. They were my core mantras for children, and core mantras for staff. These are my values, and the values I would love the people I work with and work for to share.

For children:

  1. Education changes your destiny.
  2. Discipline now means freedom later in life.
  3. The more effort you put in, the more you will get.
  4. Politeness gets you where you want to go.

And for teachers:

  1. Children rise (or fall) to our expectations.
  2. Powerful knowledge changes lives.
  3. All children are essentially good – it’s their behaviour that sometimes is not.
  4. Tough standards for kids are loving.
  5. Success motivates.
  6. All kids can do all things.

And number six is really the core of it all. I couldn’t count the number of times Hall referred to the belief in all children to do all things. And that really made me think: do I still believe this? And does every teacher in my school believe this?

Because over time, this driving belief that all children can achieve academically is being gradually eroded. The more time I spend with the ‘edge-case’ children, the more children I see being excluded from schools, or simply refusing to attend school at all, the more children aged fifteen and sixteen I see who can barely write even one coherent sentence, the more I start to think: is it possible?

And yet we have to believe. Perhaps the key is wilful belief, against the evidence. Meeting up with a colleague recently, we argued about the extent to which a child’s genes determined their ability. When it came down to it, I said, it didn’t matter what evidence my colleague had – I just could not believe it and still do a good job. Perhaps we have to believe against all evidence to the contrary that it is possible.

Then what do we do? Working it out – that’s the hard part. But it has to start with belief.

“Do now”

I recently finished Glass Ceilings, which is my favourite education book of 2018 – so far, that is. Amongst the many, many take-aways from this book was a reminder to me of a simple but effective practice I had all but stopped. The ‘do now.’

In Glass Ceilings, Hall describes the powerful simplicity of a small number of repetitive teaching activities observed in US Charter Schools that had a dramatic impact on learning, and one was the omnipresence of a ‘do now’ so children entered a classroom and were immediately working. Hall called this ‘bell to bell working,’ which I loved.

I raved about ‘do nows’ in my early years of teaching, adopting the name after devouring Doug Lemov’s seminal Teach Like a Champion. You wouldn’t walk into my classroom without finding a slide on the board of some kind of ‘starter’ or ‘warm-up’. The idea is that they ensure all students have something to do from the moment they enter the classroom.

At some point, I seem to have forgotten this. During my first few terms at Ebbsfleet, I’ve wasted at least 3 minutes of every lesson getting my class in and doing the register, tending to ask the students to revise using their knowledge organisers while I do this. But for the past two weeks, I’ve asked them instead of answer the questions on the board silently in their books.

At first, they rebelled. The first two lessons they went from being placid, calm and silent on entry to chatting and asking unneeded questions as I valiantly struggled to behaviour manage, answer questions, and take the register. Any change in routine is hard for children. After about three days, they got into the swing of it, and the focus and learning right from the moment they enter the room has now hugely improved.

The other benefit of a ‘do now’ is it forces me to reflect on each lesson as I teach it: what are the key concepts they struggled with that I want to revisit straight away at the start of the next lesson? Here are some recent ‘do nows’ for our study of Jekyll and Hyde:

  1. Write down every date you can remember that links to ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’
  2. What happened on those dates?
  3. Use your knowledge organiser and add anything you have forgotten in a green pen.

Extension: What has happened so far in the novella?

Super extension: What do you predict will happen next?

  1. Who wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’ and when?
  2. How does ‘On the Origin of Species’ link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?
  3. Who developed the theory of psychoanalysis?
  4. How does this theory link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?

Extension: what specific quotations or examples from the novella link to these two texts?

 

These examples are quite ‘knowledge-heavy’ – they look like overly basic recall perhaps. But over time, after finding the students were beginning to automate this, I started adding some more ‘application of knowledge’ questions to these – such as ‘why did Stevenson write this novella?’ or ‘how do specific aspects of Victorian society impact on the novella?’ or ‘why did Stevenson choose to write a novella and not a novel?’

All in all, the do now takes me about four minutes to plan and type into a Word document, and four minutes for the students to complete. Simple but effective.

Reading ‘Little Soldiers’

I recently read Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu. It is part personal anecdote, supplemented by research, and tells of an American couple (one half of whom is Chinese-American) who moved to Shanghai for work and made the decision to enter their son in the Chinese school system. Chu’s insights on the system, particularly those from her personal perspective, are fascinating.

The book opens with note on Shanghai and its status as dominating the world’s academic league tables. Chu at no point questions the strength of Shanghai’s academics, but she does debate the values of the system. Throughout the book we continually see Chu finding herself at odds with the top-performing Shanghai school, and in parts of the book I couldn’t work out whether I sympathized less with Chu or the school.

Chu cites ‘troubling signs’ in her four-year-old son, including a ‘habit of obeisance,’ giving the example of her son, Rainey, saying ‘I don’t like singing, but if you want me to do it, I’ll do it.’ More troubling to Chu is that Rainey doesn’t like eggs, and she discovers that the teacher has put egg in his mouth, which leaves her feeling affronted at this invasion of her son’s choices. Although the episode did make me feel very uncomfortable, the mother’s interactions with the school also contains an uneasy kernel of truth that the Western way is far from perfect: “‘We motivate them to choose to eat eggs,’” she tells the school. “‘Does it work?’ ‘Well… not always,’ I admitted.” What is clear in this, and all episodes, is the Chinese clarity on values, with a black/white sense of right and wrong. The teacher follows up this conversation saying: ‘Rainey needs to eat eggs. We think eggs are good nutrition, and all young children must eat them.’ Conversation over.

At a number of points, the Chinese teacher advises that narrator ‘refrain from questioning my methods in front of Rainey… it is better that the children think we are in agreement about everything.’ I could not agree more. Although parents questioning a school’s practices can provide vital feedback to school leaders, if this is done in front of the children it can be undermining and give children an ‘out.’ I’m always grateful when parents ask to speak with me one to one after their child has left a parent meeting to share their concerns about how an issue is being dealt with.

Indeed, at times I did feel the narrator came across as slightly disrespectful to the teachers – not only in questioning their choices in front of her son, but also when she narrates her husband complaining as they tear and staple their son’s many worksheets of an evening: ‘Shouldn’t this be the school’s responsibility? Or a teacher’s aide?’ I am grateful that the narrator has been so honest, but I found this a shocking insight that parents would be so unwilling to do this kind of admin for their child, especially so given the massive class sizes in China. This factor would mean this kind of task, if done by a teacher, would take vital hours they could be spending more productively, in terms of planning the children’s learning.

At another point in the book, Chu is concerned that Rainey doesn’t want to stand out, for example on the school’s ‘grandparents day’ when he does not have a grandparent available to fly across the ocean and is advised to stay at home for the day (which does, I think, seem a little insensitive). Chu comes in and stands in the place of the grandparent. Chu’s worries this is due to ‘the Chinese cultural focus on the collective rather than the individual,’ but I think this issue transcends culture: in my experience, all children are sensitive to difference, and those who do not conform are often picked on, in nursery and primary schools often cruelly so.

In places the Chinese methods come across as simply shocking. On the first day of primary school, for example, physically placing children in their seats and shouting at them for breaking rules they have not yet been taught comes across as outrageously inhuman. But it is also easy to understand the Chinese argument that ‘with more than fifty children in a classroom, it’s simply impossible to let children step out of line.’

Again, though, it is shocking from both sides. When Chu and her husband visit the school to air their concerns about their methods, they are told during the meeting that their child is mounting other children like they are a donkey and hitting them. If I’m honest, their response is nowhere near as shocked on hearing this as I expected – surely this is a cause of huge embarrassment to them? (“‘Oh,’ I responded, as flatly as I could. [The teacher] looked at me with surprise, as if she’d expected me to recoil with horror. I was concerned, but frankly, I also wanted to laugh.’) Though I admit my experience of teaching reception children is precisely zero, so perhaps this is normal.

The book is underscored with the parents’ Western prioritisation of individualism and exceptions – yet their child actually adjusts quickly. As Chu says: ‘unlike me, I could see that Rainey had adjusted. He was finding his own way to get things done. He wanted more water, and he’d discovered that faking a cough was the most effective way to accomplish his goal without triggering the teachers’ ire.’ She finds that when they return to the USA for a vacation, everyone who meets them is amazed at how well behaved their son is and how advanced he is. The son’s pride in these interactions gleams off the page.

As with so many of these cross-cultural studies, it all ultimately comes down to what you value in education. The author cites country after country rejecting their low PISA results claiming that the ‘results don’t measure what we value.’ Chu cites the evidence that American children score far lower in Maths than their Shanghai peers, but follows up with the evidence that the American children who do score highly love it. This raises an important question: what is better, doing well, or loving the subject? And aren’t both outcomes possible?

At one point the father worries ‘we’re losing control of his mind,’ and some of the examples of Communist propaganda are shocking to read about, and a chilling reminder of just how easily influenced young children are. (I’m sure many Western readers will remember stories from Communist Russia where children would shop in their own parents to the authorities.)

It is also unequivocally disturbing for this Western reader to hear children being called by numbers and not names.

Indeed, it is clear that the Chinese system is far from perfect, most notably in the chasm of educational achievement between rural and urban areas. There are deep inequalities, with frightening numbers of children falling out of the system altogether.

At the same time, there is lots to learn. Chu quotes the values of Chinese educator Xiaodong Lin: ‘Americans emphasise achievement without hard work. They believe in the concept of genius. This is a problem. The Chinese – they know hard work.’ This includes training children to endure discomfort and persevere anyway: Chinese schools usually lack even the basics like heating, where, in contrast, an American educator is quoted saying his class can’t even sit still for an hour.

As the book goes on, Chu becomes increasingly positive about benefits of the Shanghai system, at least for her son in his high-performing urban school: over halfway through she writes: ‘the Chinese way is to hire good administrators and trust them to do their jobs; parents were to support the system, take responsibility for as much as possible, and keep petty distractions out of the equation. I didn’t disagree.’ In fact, Chu becomes increasingly concerned that her parenting methods conflict with the school and are potentially negating any advantages of the Chinese methods. All in all, this is a compelling read.