Developing a learning centred approach to bilingual education

Care is needed when employing strategy or practices without high quality evidence of impact. The issue of unfounded practice in schools is exacerbated in the context of a bilingual school in China, for which there is a limitation in applicable research.

In developing the bilingual educational model at Huili Education, a learning centred approach has been adopted. The process has comprised:

  • Establishing an understanding of current theories of learning
  • Creating an educational model founded on evidence informed learning theory
  • Ensuring the educational model remains current by drawing on contextually relevant research.


Establishing an understanding of current theories of learning

In essence, the predominant school of thought to explain how we learn is a constructivist model. This model proports that learning occurs as a consequence of neural connects, which when stimulated again produce that effect of recognising a factor(s) in the environment around us. However, learning requires more than simply accruing many mental constructs. It requires the application of these constructs in novel contexts and synthesis between them, which are the essence of education as they provide the possibilities for higher order thinking, creativity and problem solving. Essentially for Huili schools, the neural connections between mental constructs are fundamental for bilingualism. The neuroplasticity associated with linking mental constructs representing language and conceptual understanding are a necessary outcome.

Learning is maximised when the conditions are ideal for creating mental constructs. Conditions comprise all aspects of the environment in which learning takes place. Careful and measured planning and structured teaching is essential to maximise learning. This will be informed by purposeful, valid and reliable assessment that informs both teacher and learner of next steps in learning. Structure also extends beyond pedagogy and requires a thoughtfully structured and challenging curriculum, although the rigour of any syllabus or curriculum is limited by the quality of teaching.

A bilingual educational model requires not only establishing mental constructs for Chinese and English but also developing connections between such constructs such that learners can efficiently navigate through concepts, topics and subjects in multiple languages. Neuroplasticity is essential in order to permit learners to switch between languages in various contexts. Therefore, it is essential that learning opportunities are structured in a way that promotes connections between learning of concepts in both Chinese and English.

In conclusion, learning is influenced by two parameters the structured learning experience created by the teacher and the school along with the social and emotional context of the learner. Pupil wellbeing, involvement, engagement, pupil self-efficacy and motivation have all been shown to have a more significant impact on learning than pedagogy or curriculum. At a physiological level, the construction of mental constructs is facilitated by high levels of dopamine and oxytocin released in the brain with high levels of happiness and wellbeing respectively. Thus, when pupils are highly motivated, enjoy learning and feel like they belong, learning happens much more effectively. Whilst, high levels of stress and anxiety results in the release of cortisol, which greatly limits the creation of mental constructs.


Creating an educational model founded on evidence informed learning theory

To maximise learning, the Huili offer is founded on a learning centred model. Firstly, a clear definition of bilingualism has been defined which allows all stakeholders to have clarity on what success entails. A detailed curriculum analysis is necessary to establish what pupils must know and be able to do in order to be successful within the model and how learning opportunities for this are to be organised and experienced. The Huili curriculum comprises the content required for learners in Shanghai or Zhejiang but delivered in a Wellington College China learning centred way. The rigour associated with Chinese education is embraced as the approach efficiently establishes mental constructs through effective structuring of curriculum content and precision in pedagogy, whilst the distinctive Wellington College China approach coherently provides learning opportunities across all curriculum areas that promotes synthesis between mental constructs and application of existing knowledge in order to strengthen neural connections and generate higher order thinking.

Essentially, a measured approach to providing learning opportunities in most curriculum areas in both English and Chinese ensures constructs allow for linguistic and conceptual constructs to be connected. This is achieved through a careful balance of introducing concepts in one language and then apply, think critically, creatively and solve problems in a second language. For younger learners, learning opportunities in both Chinese and English that are connected in context so that language acquisition can occur simultaneously.

What pupils are expected to learn is organised through careful mapping of required curriculum from Shanghai or Zhejiang with opportunities to utilise pedagogy and practice that reflect the Wellington College values and identity. This creates a set of carefully designed curriculum plans that meets regulation requirements, to also delivers on the vision academically, linguistically and developmentally. However, the ideal conditions are also dependent on effective pedagogical practices.

Finally, carefully developed assessment systems that draw on multiple sources of evidence of learning and development are essential in a bilingual context. Validity and reliability are compromised when assessment is undertaken in a second language so a collection of assessment methods are used to increase accuracy in teacher judgment. Importantly, assessment is only of value when it is shared with learners to assist with defining next steps in learning. This is feature of the Huili assessment framework.

Ensuring the educational model remains current by drawing on contextually relevant research

Ensuring excellence demands a relentless approach to evaluating impact and further enhancing practice, policy and strategy. The approach adopted in Huili involves undertaking strategically important and contextually relevant research. This is facilitated by capacity within Wellington College China along with drawing on world leaders in education research; such as Professor Rob Coe, along with strong connections with local education systems in China.

The areas of focus for research have been selected to strengthen performance in key areas of the learning model introduced in section 1 above: the impact of pedagogy on pupil engagement; bilingual model on language acquisition; the influence of direct teaching for wellbeing and involvement on the quality of teaching and learning; leadership: comparative analysis of Chinese, bilingual and international schools.

A measured approach to evaluating the impact of various components of the bilingual educational model is essential is learning is to be maximised. Currently the focus is on: the nature of co-planning and co-teaching; the type or choice of bilingual model in early years education; the extent and nature of immersive language experiences.

Finally, an exploration of leadership and its underpinning components in the context of Chinese, bilingual and international schools reveal the links between culture, policy, practice and product in education and the nature of leadership. Building up an awareness of the links between leadership and education culture in multiple school contexts will help answer questions around how leadership can be enhanced in a bilingual context to maximise impact on learning.

Where next? Perhaps a study to explore how the development of neuroplasticity can be maximised in classrooms across Huili.

The Wellington College China Institute of Learning is committed to sharing findings from the research projects it leads through the many professional learning opportunities it offers. For details on workshops and conferences led by the Institute of Learning, please scan the QR code.

Higgins, S., Katsipataki, M., Kokotsaki, D., Coleman, R., Major, L.E., & Coe, R. (2014). The Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit. London: Education Endowment Foundation.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York. Harper & Row.
Dorothy Heathcote, Contexts for Active Learning, 2002.

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Where Next


Leadership Programmes




Institute of Learning Workshops