I’m delighted that my first guest blogger of 2011 is Simon Greenall, a friend, colleague and co-worker for more than twenty years, and the driving force behind one of the biggest educational projects of all time, New Standard English, the Macmillan co-production with Beijing publisher FLTRP, a series of English books from primary to college level. Simon looks back on the project, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year.
It’s a great privilege to do a guest spot for Ken, not just because I’m a keen and regular reader of his blog, but because he was one of the many brilliant writers and editors who worked on New Standard English, the project I talk about below. This is an edited and updated version of an article first published in The Author, the Society of Authors’ quarterly journal, Autumn issue 2007.
New Standard English – the first ten years…
It’s about 8.30am, and I leave for the office, about fifteen minutes’ walk away. I go past the uniformed security guards and into the large open plan office where I greet my friends. Someone brings me a coffee and the latest gossip, then I sit down, sometimes with one editor, sometimes with another, and we start work checking proofs. I could be with any ELT publisher in the UK … but this is the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (FLTRP) in Beijing, and it’s the start of a very typical day.
Twelve years ago, Christopher Paterson, the Chairman of Macmillan Education and Yiu Hei Kan, managing director of Macmillan (China) began to explore a possible partnership with FLTRP, one of the largest educational publishers in China. China was to be admitted to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and would sign the International Copyright Agreement. These events coincided with an important curriculum reform in primary and secondary education.
The first fruits of this partnership were a textbook series for primary schools. The Chinese Ministry of Education curriculum reform now requires English to be taught from the age of eight. No one in China had produced books for this age group before, and while Macmillan has published primary school books elsewhere in the world, no one was certain if this experience was relevant for China. A team of UK-based writers, with Printha Ellis as Chief Editor, worked with an editorial team in FLTRP to publish a series of textbooks. Sadly, Printha died before she could see the extraordinary success of New Standard English for Primary schools, which soon became the best seller in China.
In December 2000, I went to Beijing to discuss plans for the continuation of the New Standard English series in junior middle and senior high schools. I sat through my first nerve-wracking meeting, one of three people from Macmillan facing twenty Chinese editors, publishers and professors. It was the start of many meetings.
Every seven or eight weeks over the next four or five years, I’d go from the UK to Beijing. We discussed the kind of English that China would need for the 21st century, we researched the traditions of teaching and publishing in China, and we explored how Macmillan’s international expertise could be used in the Chinese context.
The Chinese Ministry of Education imposes many requirements on the grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and the social and cultural content. Our final course design had to work within these constraints, as well as to have a story line, and to be interesting and motivating for the schoolchildren. Above all, we had to submit the seventeen main coursebooks to the Ministry of Education for approval. About forty books, including teachers’ books and supplementary material, had to be ready for the start of the 2006 school year.
There were up to fifteen authors and editors in the Macmillan team, including Ken, with Dede Wilson advising on the teacher training, as well as about twenty editors and professors in Beijing. As co-editor in chief, my role in Beijing was to help interpret feedback from both the market and the FLTRP team, and to develop the course design. Back in the UK, I then briefed the Macmillan team, monitored the writing progress and helped edit or rewrite, if necessary.
It wasn’t always easy. One problem was the Ministry wordlist, a list of about 3500 words which are considered to be the most frequently used and which need to be taught. While it is relatively easy to think of unconnected sentences to illustrate the meanings of these words, we needed to ensure they were presented in a more extended context, within the general topic of the lesson, and in a way which practised different language skills.
At times it meant trying to write an exciting dialogue for teenagers which included such disparate words as Ottawa, dumpling, goldfish and shabby.
The Beijing team had to ensure the dialogues and passages that we wrote were appropriate for schoolchildren. Only positive moral values and role models could be portrayed, respect for parents and older people was maintained at all costs, and negative feelings about, for example, up-coming exams was unacceptable. More specifically, there were certain words which, if we included them in a reading passage, would be questioned. These included not only the most obvious ones, such as human rights, Taiwan, or God, but also names, places and events. Apparently innocent (to a westerner) words, such as change, exile, boss, needed to be treated with care, and even the word communism would have attracted attention to the context in which it was used.
One particular difficulty in our working relationship was our different understanding of the concept of time. There is a theory that all societies gradually move from a concept of appropriate time (I’m hungry, so I’ll have lunch) to one of clock time (It’s 1pm so I’ll have lunch). This is usually related to some transition in their economic, trading or business life. Cultures which are at different stages in this transition may experience conflict between the two contrasting views of the same concept.
Perhaps this explains why, for our project, schedules were often unrealistic, quality was initially compromised, and there was a lot of urgent rewriting. Although the UK and the Beijing teams shared the consequences of any setbacks, and give each other endless support, we have never entirely overcome this cultural difference.
But on the whole, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. New Standard English for Junior High and Senior High schools was rolled out into schools over several years beginning in 2006, and I became involved in the teacher training and promotional plan. Part of my work included visiting provinces which have adopted our books. My visits usually include a presentation, a question-and-answer session, the inevitable fifteen-course banquet with the provincial ministry officials, and some of the most welcoming hospitality you could imagine.
These trips have taken me all over the country, from Ningxia, a Muslim, semi-autonomous province in the desert in the north, via Guilin, with its rocks rising vertically from the river in scenes photographed for travel books everywhere, to the tropical island of Hainan, with its water buffalos and rice fields.
A substantial part of the marketing budget for a textbook series is assigned to teacher training. FLTRP, for example, holds seminars all over the country, and runs training courses at its purpose-built conference centre at Daxing, just outside Beijing. The facilities here include a 1500-seater auditorium, two or three smaller lecture halls, break-out rooms, a hotel and other accommodation for all the delegates or trainees.
There’s also an entertainment complex with a bowling alley, karaoke room, gym and a 25-metre swimming pool fed by the hot springs which were discovered while the centre was being built. It’s extravagant and visible proof of FLTRP’s commitment to developing best practices in education.
Above all, the relationship between FLTRP and Macmillan seemed to be a model of intercultural co-operation, with both teams learning from and supporting each other. And together, we’ve been fortunate. The New Standard English course is now one of the best selling courses in China, and by the end of 2010 has sold 475 million components.
However, the price of each textbook is low, sometimes 40 pence for a book for which the UK list price might be £9 or £10. A few years ago, in order to make the main course textbooks for Primary and Junior Middle Schools even cheaper, the government decided to allow publishers to print and distribute their competitors’ books under licence within their own provinces.
The licence was subject to a bidding process: the lower the bid, the cheaper the title, and so a more attractive proposition to the provincial ministry. It was like Oxford University Press being obliged to sell a licence to Cambridge University Prtess to print and distribute OUP books in Cambridgeshire, for a low royalty. Fortunately, the licence bidding process increased overall sales and its net effect on revenue was neutral. But it was a decision which showed some of the unpredictability of doing business in China.
Over these ten years, our mutual trust and affection has grown. FLTRP is a first-rate publisher and a model employer, and has welcomed me as one of the family. Among my friends and colleagues, we recognise, enjoy and even celebrate the cultural differences between us. I’ve had the privilege of an insight on life in China which is denied to most visitors from the West. But above all, I’ve learnt that I should not always view a different culture or society through my own Western eyes.
It’s now six pm, and the last evening of my stay. Someone has booked one of the many rooms in Partyworld, where we have something to eat, and then sing karaoke for three hours or more. Any song by the Beatles or from the Sound of Music are favourites. It’s surprising how much fun we can have with our own poor singing and without any alcohol to give us courage. When I say goodbye, I already begin to miss my friends, although it won’t be more than a few weeks before I come to Beijing again. We sit together, we work together and at the end of the day, we play together. We’ll remain friends for life.
Simon Greenall is an ELT textbook writer, past president of IATEFL, and co-editor in chief of New Standard English for Chinese schools, as well as New Standard College English and Lower Level College English for Chinese universities. He is also an advisor on Discover China, a series for teaching Chinese. At present, he’s working on the second edition of New Standard English … which could easily take another ten years!