What can China teach our children for Chinese New Year?

By - Tuesday 26th January, 2016

Chinese children are exceptionally high achievers. Charlotte Davies suggests ways to help our children to learn from this culture

Croydon will have its first Chinese New Year parade on Sunday 7th February, starting from the Whitgift Centre and finishing at Fairfield Halls. It is organised by Hale Man, artist-in-residence at the Whitgift Centre; who has created a phoenix sculpture to represent the communities of Croydon coming together to rise up again.

2016 is the Year of the Monkey. The monkey is associated with intelligence, skill and leadership: traits that our children need in these straitened times, with growing pupil numbers, teacher shortages and funding cuts.

Studies show that children of Chinese origin do incredibly well in UK schools, but why? And what can we in Croydon learn from this to help our children?

Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), has called for a movement towards better understanding of the complexity and subtlety of Far Eastern education systems.

In Hong Kong I’d found joy in teaching, In London the children were bored and did not want to learn

“In 1989 I returned from Hong Kong to London to train as a teacher and experienced culture shock. I had discovered the joy of teaching whilst working in a small school in Hong Kong. In London on my teaching practice I taught children who were bored and did not want to learn. I was genuinely confused and could not understand how learning could be inaccessible to so many. I could not understand how such a well-resourced system could be producing such poor outcomes”.

Problems in maths skills in Croydon are already obvious

Many of the documentaries on Chinese education focus on the long hours’ culture, but that is in many ways a weakness of the system.In mathematics by international standards (OECD 2012) the UK has a long tail of ability; a large proportion of the population cannot access basic mathematical skills. The Chinese, by comparison, do not. This is important because mathematics underpins much of the new technology that will define the next 100 years of human development. Individuals need maths skills in order to be able to gain equal opportunities in life.

Problems in maths skills in Croydon are already obvious; by the end of OECD’s Key Stage 2, only 88% are making “expected progress”. The national average for percentage of pupils achieving Level 5 or above in reading, writing and maths is 24% and some of our primary schools are struggling to achieve 10%. This is an issue we all need to address.

Country Share of low achievers in maths below Level 2 Share of top performers in maths Level 5 or 6



Hong Kong












United Kingdom



United States



Table: OECD, PISA 2012

“Asian children come to the classroom ready and open to learning in a way that I took for granted when I taught them and missed badly when I returned to the UK”, says Charlie. “It is not just an attitude; aspects of Chinese culture promote child development better than UK culture”.

Better motor skills are related to better performance in cognitive tests as has been established by several academic studies. There are various games and activities which promote good motor skill control. For example, the traditional game of Jianzi involves keeping a shuttlecock up with any part of the body apart from the hands. Chinese children learn to play this game from a young age. Also, martial arts from tai chi to judo promote good control over the body and are widely and regularly practised.

An 2014 educational study found that children with learning difficulties display mid-line crossing problems, whereas children without learning difficulties do not. Mid-line crossing is the ability for the left body to work smoothly with the right side of the body. Children with mid-line crossing problems will avoid working on one side of the body.

Evidence indicates that early fine motor skills indicate better academic performance later in life

Chinese children spend a lot of time working across their mid-line as a normal part of their lives, for example when they practice writing Chinese characters. When children start writing they practice on large sheets of paper divided into quarters to encourage them to write accurately. Developing a good understanding of left and right is vital for mathematics and general understanding of spatial awareness.

Evidence indicates that early fine motor skills indicate better academic performance later in life. Chinese culture promotes fine motor skills through use of chopsticks for eating and serving food. Chinese children also use their fingers for a standard counting system which everyone uses and understands.

Studies also show that music education can impact on a wide range of cognitive and social skills. Chinese language is tonal, which means that children have to listen carefully to the rise and fall of words as well as syllables to understand the meaning. The complexity of a tonal language impacts on cognitive development in the same way as music.

This February, take some time to pick up some Chinese toys, games and activities

Learning thousands of characters, using an abacus, playing complex paper folding games such as origami, all require children to develop very good memories. Memory is a vital skill in all learning. In mathematics, children who develop the ability to hold a visual picture of an abacus have a huge advantage in being able to visualise and manipulate digits. In the West, it’s unusual to play with mental arithmetic with such skill.

This February when we come together to celebrate Chinese new year, take some time to pick up some Chinese toys, games and activities. Let’s think how we can learn from them and also have some fun.

Kung hei fat choi!

A belated happy new year!

Charlotte Davies

Charlotte Davies

I am an Educational Consultant, Director of Fit 2 Learn CIC, Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. My teaching experience has covered Economics and Business Education including Enterprise; I have worked as a senior teacher. I now work to identify the root causes of educational under-achievement.

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  • CB

    No doubt it seems Chinese culture affords many great learning opportunities and advantages for children. Having taught in Taiwan in public and private schools for over a decade I’ve seen a wide group of students from the exceptional to the completely defeated by the system.

    I’ve also seen creative and alive minds completely deadened and dulled by intermediate to high school. So much of education focuses on lower level thinking skills below application. As a result in my opinion, the very focused and repetitive regurgitation “learning process” once begun at a younger age never really goes away even at the university level. This results in an entire generation who struggles to think critically and effectively apply and evaluate new ideas for new outcomes.

    Having also taught loads of adult Chinese (PRC) students in Auckland, I’ve seen an even worse results in the area of critical thinking. With complete government control of education, you’re not taught how to think, but rather what to think. It presents unique teaching challenges especially in the area of task-based learning in ESOL, where the learner must apply what they know to solve a real problem. Everyone wants to look the answer, rather than creatively finding their own solution.

    The nature of tackling Mandarin lends itself to regurgitation rut initially which unfortunately many teachers and the system often fail to move beyond. That’s been my experience. I’ve taught very few students from HK though.

    • Charlotte Davies

      Absolutely, but their understanding of early years development is far better than ours, hence they do not have the tail of ability that we have. At the end of World War Two, after the UK had had to mobilise the whole population, we knew why basic development was important – we seem to have forgotten that. The UK armed forces know that basic training raises IQ. I am seeing children everyday with poor physical development that constrains their lifetime choices. We need to critically select the best aspects of other countries systems and not blindly sign up to deadening hours of repetitive learning and long hours culture.