coronavirus Education

The Scottish Black Sheep

Apart from moaning and complaining about politics, I spend a lot of my time at my day job preparing Chinese youngsters for future exams (and life in general). I’m a primary school teacher at a foreign language school in Xiamen, on the South East coast of China. As you would imagine, there are some interesting differences between the education systems in China and my home country of Scotland.

For a start, here in China, teachers follow their students throughout their education. I get a new group of students in first grade and then I stay with those kids until their sixth grade, at which point they move on to middle school and I go back to first grade to start again with a new intake. It allows us to build even closer relationships with our students, we are expected to not only be their teachers but also their mentors.

Another difference is that we don’t just have one kind of primary school here, parents will also choose which type of primary school they send their children to. As I said, I work at a foreign language school, where there is an additional focus on the kids learning new languages. Experimental schools put an additional emphasis on things like the sciences. The additional emphasis at music schools is obvious while at “normal” schools there is a balance between the subjects and no particular extra focus. Although regardless of which school the students attend, Maths and Chinese Language will be their two most important subjects as these are most heavily weighted on the Gaokao exam – the national exam used to determine entry to university in China.

Other differences include how we teach our students. In China there is an emphasis on encouraging the students to think logically (although recently there has been a push to also encourage creative tendencies). It is with regard to this “logical thinking” approach that I came across a short story that is taught to Chinese children, “The Scottish Black Sheep”.

The story usually goes something like this. Three Chinese tourists are visiting Scotland, a boy with his father and grandfather. Upon arriving in Scotland they head up into the Highlands to appreciate Scotland’s famous natural beauty.

As it happens, the first animal that they see is a black sheep. The boy, eyes full of wonder, excitedly says to his father, “Baba, Baba, look! The sheep in Scotland are not white, they are black!”

The father smiles, amused by his son. “Son”, he says, “From our point of view we can not say that ALL of the sheep in Scotland are black. Maybe they also have white sheep and we just can’t see them right now. No, all we can say from our point of view is that Scotland has black sheep”.

At this point the grandfather chimes in. “No no no, you are both wrong. From our point of view, all we can say is that this sheep has at least one black side!”.

China is of course a big place and so there will be various versions of this story out there, but this appears to be the most popular variant. So popular in fact that it was included in the recent Chinese movie “Animal World” (which if you ever wondered what the game “rock, paper, scissors” would look like as a feature length movie you should definitely watch). Some aspects might change, the tourists aren’t always in Scotland and they aren’t always a family. The story is popular because it helps convey an important lesson, and that lesson is always the same regardless of what version of the tale is told.

The story teaches the children to think about what conclusions can (and can’t) be drawn from the available evidence. It’s part of a long tradition in Chinese education, summed up by the famous slogan “seek truth from facts” (shí shì qiú shì / 实事求是), which dates from the Han Dynasty (204BC to 25AD) describing an attitude towards study and research, and is currently the guiding mantra of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s extremely useful for an education system that prioritises subjects like maths and physics, but it also has more general applications.

The ability to determine what we can and can’t conclude from the available evidence is an extremely useful skill to possess when trying to navigate media coverage in an age of fake news, conspiracy theories and constant propaganda. It’s well known that one tactic Western media employs is to use sensationalist headlines, but then when you read the actual article there is scant evidence to support the headline. Do most people not get beyond the headline? Or are they not practised in the skill of weighing the evidence? (Of course large numbers of people simply ignore the news media these days, but that’s another story.)

Does the available evidence really support the claims made by Western media headlines? Does the evidence really show that Corbyn is an anti-semite or supports terrorism? Does the evidence really show that North Korea has concentration camps that can be seen from space? Does the evidence really show that China made Covid-19 in a lab?

Or lets think about that stupid and dangerous conspiracy theory doing the rounds on Facebook, usually in the form of a video called “plandemic” which was produced by an anti-vaccine group. Does the evidence really show that Bill Gates made Covid19 in a lab and is trying to poison everyone with it so that he can force vaccines on us? Well of course not! You don’t give vaccines to sick people, that is not what vaccines are for! A bit of logical thinking and careful consideration of the evidence is all you need to understand why that particular conspiracy theory makes zero sense.

Try to think of things from the perspective of the old man in The Scottish Black Sheep. Don’t let people with an agenda force stupid beliefs on you, consider the evidence and weigh it up for yourself.

By Beinn Irbhinn
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