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Why do we need PhDs in fundamental education? -Ⅰ

16 Mar 2021


One of the hottest topics in international education is always the challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers with the highest academic qualifications and broadest professional experience. Over the past years, an increasing number of top-tier institutions in fundamental education (a term which here refers to education at the primary and secondary levels) have sought to employ teachers with doctorate degrees to join their faculty. At Huili School Shanghai, we know from personal experience the several benefits and advantages of having PhDs in the classroom.

Huili School Shanghai and the Wellington College China group have attracted the attention of teachers with doctoral degrees from some of the world’s top universities. In a previous issue, we shared with you a conversation with Dr Zhang Yudong, who conducted his research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and has been engaged in international bilingual education for over ten years. In this issue, we speak with Dr Paulo Arruda (Dr Paulo) to provide a further perspective on the value of PhDs on our campus.

In this issue, we speak with Dr Paulo Arruda (Dr Paulo) to provide a further perspective on the value of PhDs on our campus. In this dialogue with Dr Paulo, the author was impressed by the academic value and significance of PhDs in the classroom in fundamental education.


Editor's Note



Introduction to Dr Paulo 

Dr Paulo was awarded his doctoral degree in History from King's College London, where he researched a prominent Portuguese exile in London in the early 1800s. He then joined a progressive independent school in the UK, going on to develop extensive experience teaching IBDP courses in Philosophy and Theory of Knowledge, and supervising students undertaking their own research and Extended Essays. This academic year, he joined our Social Studies department at Huili School Shanghai, where he works with students in the Junior High School. He has a remarkable doctoral trait and temperament, as well as a unique teaching method thanks to his own educational background and professional experience. 

  Stay tuned the interview Ⅱ this Thursday 




The Concept of “Mutual Benefits of Teaching 

and Learning” Advancing with the Times

Traditional thinking might place a PhD in a university classroom, teaching undergraduate students. Traditional thinking might judge that a PhD is ‘overqualified’ for a classroom in fundamental education. However, this view is clearly changing, with international schools and western education leading the way, and showing the full extent to which PhDs can contribute to inspire and empower students’ academic achievements. Dr Paulo’s own trajectory is certainly exemplary of this. Below, we look at how his own views on education have taken shape and how his career has developed over the years.

Whilst researching his doctorate in London, Dr Paulo decided still at an early stage to devote himself to fundamental education after writing his thesis. His decision, or ‘epiphany’ as he described it, was tied directly with his work for a UK charity called “The Brilliant Club”. This philanthropic organisation places PhD candidates from Russel Group universities in underprivileged schools across the UK to give ‘university-style tutorials’ to primary and secondary-level pupils.

The Russell Group, founded in 1994, is composed of 24 leading research universities in the UK, including Cambridge and Oxford Universities, as well as King’s College London. It is often referred to as "the Ivy League of the UK".

The so-called university-style tutorial creates in the school a learning environment that is akin to an undergraduate, graduate, or even doctoral-level discussion and inquiry with pupils. Here, students ask their own questions, sharpen their academic skills and conduct their own investigations, and report their findings to their peers. The PhD, in this case, is a role model of intellectual curiosity and scholarly engagement.

Doctoral candidates working with The Brilliant Club come from some of the top universities in the UK, all Russell Group institutions, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Royal Holloway, King's College London, and University College London. They have an enviable educational background and are experts in their respective fields of research. They have sharp critical thinking skills, and a range of other skills that we also at Huili expect our own students to develop and to polish throughout their education with us.

And they are working with pupils from relatively ‘disadvantaged’ schools across England, the parents of these pupils may not have gone to university themselves and cannot provide them with effective academic guidance. Their financial circumstances may not give them the support they need to go on to undertake higher education. The schools they attend are under-represented in university admissions, and they may lack high-quality educational resources and facilities.


Doctoral candidates and disadvantaged children; it seems these two groups could not be further apart. If fundamental education is regarded as the foundation for higher education, then the many circumstances and challenges facing primary and secondary school pupils seriously limit what they can achieve, and how far they can reach in their learning.

This is where Dr Paulo and The Brilliant Club stepped in, to raise ambitions in education and to nurture the development of talented, hard-working, but disadvantaged primary and secondary school pupils.



The Enlightening Effect of PhDs 

in Fundamental Education

Dr Paulo has explained to me exactly where this "enlightenment" took place whilst working with his The Brilliant Club pupils.

In schools, Dr Paulo and his fellow PhD tutors facilitated a number of university-style tutorials for pupils. They communicated and discussed their own research investigations. They also took pupils on tours of their university campuses where they taught inaugural lessons.

Pupils, also known as scholars, could take multiple courses with doctoral candidates from different universities, researching a diverse range of fields. They earned a certificate at the end of the course. They got hands-on experience of what it is like to conduct and communicate research. This experience greatly advanced their critical thinking skills, as well as their ambition to enter higher education, and to ask and answer their own questions.


"It was a very successful charity programme," said Dr Paulo, who was still excited about his teaching experience. “Imagine a child from a disadvantaged background, from a disadvantaged school in London, off to Oxford for the first time, perhaps the first in their family to set foot on a university campus, to engage in learning with a doctoral candidate in one of the Oxford faculties. Imagine now this child is profoundly inspired and begins to envision what they too can accomplish, with the right support, and how far they can and want to go in their education, in their fields of interest. It was always an invaluable opportunity to impact the life of a child."

You can imagine how many children have benefited, and still benefit, from this programme to reach new heights in their learning.




Bridging the Gap between Fundamental 

and Higher Education

There is a clear bridge for students from fundamental education to higher education. This bridge is supported by the collective efforts of educators, parents, and a range of other actors. PhDs ought to be seen as ‘envoys’ who can ‘mentor’ students and serve as ‘role models’ of academic achievement. They can supervise and offer guidance to students, so that students can effectively prepare for the quality of investigations they can expect at the level of higher education. These ‘envoys’ have travelled the distance, they have aimed high and achieved much, and serve as clear examples of what is possible in education. They are examples of intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, perseverance, organisation, self-discipline, and a host of other skills we want to encourage in our own students.

For Dr Paulo, working with disadvantaged, but talented and hard-working children gave him the opportunity to inspire, to shape their learning, and to show that they can “make their dreams in life come true in the classroom.”

Certainly, one of the aims of The Brilliant Club programme is to have more primary and secondary school pupils benefit from role models in higher education, and to benefit early. It also creates the opportunities for more doctoral candidates to take up posts in fundamental education, as it sees this as a worthy goal for PhDs. It innovatively bridges the gap between fundamental education and advanced doctoral degrees. This is a win-win situation for both sides.

Dr Paulo, who was a doctoral candidate at the time, taught history and philosophy tutorials and now says it was this experience that helped him to see the value of being a PhD – what he really enjoyed was helping children who wanted to get to university, to get to where he was, rather than those who were already there. It was for this reason that he decided to devote himself to fundamental education after concluding his thesis.

We can see how this has played out in Dr Paulo's career choice. Instead of accepting the assumption that “a PhD should end up in scientific research,” Dr Paulo went on to choose a career in fundamental education, which he loves more and brings him greater satisfaction. He sees the value of having a PhD in helping others to access the world’s top universities, much like he did, and inspiring more children to pursue their ambitions in higher education.

As a charity in the education sector, The Brilliant Club serves as a good model for ‘crafting’ and ‘adapting’ elements of higher education into fundamental education and for ways to support access to higher education and equality of opportunity. This becomes a good model to follow and to sharpen people’s perceptions of just how much PhDs can contribute to the work of schools.


Article | Virginia