Developing a learning centred approach to bilingual education

One assumes that the education on offer in schools is founded on what is known about learning. Yet many existing practices in schools are based on tradition and beliefs, not determined by scientific analysis. The short list below comprises practices not uncommon in schools across the world, but which have been demonstrated under rigorous analysis to have very limited, if any, impact in enhancing learning:

  • Setting or streaming by ability
  • Teaching to pupil learning style
  • The setting of extensive homework for primary school pupils (Higgins et al 2014)

This article does not claim that the list above should be avoided, but instead 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

This article will consider each of the points above in turn.

1. Establishing an understanding of current theories of learning

Concepts of learning emerged with the ancients, but only recently have the first studies truly begun to elucidate the learning process. 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. For example, we perceive the colour red as a consequence of neural connections developed very early in our lives and when we perceive red in our environment the same neural connections are stimulated. Such connections are stimulated frequently and as such become robust; indeed they develop into dendrites which are denser and more structured connections. Such neural connections are termed mental constructs or schemata. As we learn, we create an increasing number of mental constructs, each becoming more intricate and sophisticated as we learn more about a given concept such as colour, algebra or digestion.

Learning, however, requires more than simply accruing many mental constructs. It requires the application of these constructs in novel contexts and synthesis between them. For instance, the construct used to recognise the colour red can be used to help identify fruit or distinguish between types of vehicles. Such connections 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 from a Huili education.

Learning is maximised when the conditions are ideal for creating mental constructs. Conditions comprise all aspects of the environment in which learning takes place. The way lessons, or learning opportunities, are structured has been demonstrated to have a significant influence on learning; for instance, activating prior learning of the topic being studied prepares existing constructs to build more sophisticated enhancements. Likewise, the importance of providing learners explicit criteria for successful learning, including exemplars, is known to improve the quality of pupil outcomes, whilst opportunities for pupils to apply their learning to a given problem over a period of time, ideally in a social context, aids in the creation and consolidation of mental constructs. Thus, 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.

The creation of mental constructs, however, is not a product of the learning environment alone. There is a growing body of work that indicates that the social and emotional conditions influence on learning is profound. Indeed, they supersede that of pedagogy and curriculum, such that conditions of high levels of social and emotional are required for effective learning. 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.

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.

2. Creating an educational model founded on evidence informed learning theory

In order 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. For instance, the importance of enhancing emotional investment in learning forms part of thematic learning across the Chinese and English classrooms (Heathcote, 2002), whilst a commitment to pastoral structures and a proactive approach to promoting wellbeing is designed to maximise pupil readiness for learning.

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.

3. 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

For instance, an exploration of pedagogical approaches and the relative impact on levels of pupil engagement and investment in learning will assist in elucidating what strategies have impact in specific contexts, and as such assisting teaching and learning to become increasingly refined and impactful. Whereas, a study of the impact of scanning for and teaching to promote wellbeing and involvement on the sophistication of teaching and depth of learning will provide evidence on how social and emotional conditions for learning can be maximised across all areas of the curriculum.

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 below or visit the website.


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, Page 4

Wellington College China awarded COBIS Training School Status as recognition for outstanding professional learning and research

The Council of British International Schools (COBIS) is a body connecting more than 250 schools across more than 80 countries across the globe. The professional learning opportunities and educational research undertaken by the Institute of Learning has been recognised as outstanding by a panel of board members at COBIS and as such has been awarded Wellington College China training school status.

Ahmed Hussain will receive the award and present at the COBIS conference in London, UK in May 2019.

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Where Next


Education Consultancy