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Why do we need PhDs in fundamental education? - Ⅱ

18 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.

In our last article related to the interview with Dr Paulo Arrude (hereinafter refered to Dr Paulo), we analysed his role in terms of his link between elementary and higher education. In this issue, we look at his role in the development of pupils' curiosity, problem-solving skill and interdisciplinary thinking in the context of teaching practice. 


Editor's Note



Introduction to Dr Paulo 

Click here to read the first part of

this interview with 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. 



Promoting Academic Skills 

for Life-long Learning at Huili

When it comes to the impact of undertaking a PhD, Dr Paulo believes there is a range of transferable skills that apply very closely to the classroom. A PhD is a long-term project. It requires planning. It demands and also sharpens one’s time-management, self-discipline, intrinsic motivation, critical thinking, the ability to communicate complex information to various audiences, and many other skills.

These are all skills that Dr Paulo wants to encourage and polish in our own students here at Huili School Shanghai. As a sort of role model, he not only supports students to plan and prepare for long-term projects in Social Studies, but also for life. “These are life-long skills,” he says, “and skills that students ought to see as part of their life-long learning.”


Where does academic writing begin?

Dr Paulo draws on his experience of writing a 100,000-word PhD thesis to help his students to improve their own writing skills. “We start with evaluation essays in grade 6, then move to argumentative essays in grade 7, and later 2,000-word research papers in grade 8,” he says. According to Dr Paulo, one of the first things students must do to be able to envision their finished text is to create a timeline. By creating a timeline, and setting deadlines, and sticking to those deadlines, students are effectively planning, mapping out their work, and making important decisions about how they will carry out their research and later their writing. He tells his students that, although it starts small, it does not end small.


During our conversation, Dr Paulo highlighted that “one of the characteristics of academic writing is that it does not simply convey an ‘opinion’ but, rather, an argument, and an argument in response to a question.” This involves an investigation – an inquiry that aims to answer a question. And then also the need to support one’s response, to defend one’s claim and to support these claim with a robust body of evidence. 

This is how students can make the strongest possible arguments, he says. “Here are possibly the two words my students hear the most from me: argument, and evidence.” Indeed, the words are also up on the walls of his classroom. “I tell my students that I am a hard man to convince. And I want them to convince me, and to convince their readers, when they are writing an essay, with a solid argument."

Whether writing 2,000 words, or 4,000, when our students move into the IB Diploma Programme, or 100,000 words when they go on to write their own PhD theses, students continue to develop and to improve their skills as they move from fundamental education to higher education. Pupils have clearly a great deal to benefit from starting early, as early as their fundamental education at Huili.

This is just the kind of academic skill set that a PhD can encourage pupils to develop. This is the impact a PhD can have on students in the classroom and beyond.


Critical thinking

As a teacher of English Social Studies, Dr Paulo works with students in grades six, seven, and eight. English and Chinese Social Studies curricula are complementary. Whilst in Chinese Social Studies students approach topics of interest from a Chinese vantage point, in English Social Studies, they expand and supplement their understanding of those topics from a broader, more global perspective.

In English Social Studies, students focus on developing their critical thinking, research, and writing skills. Students identify relevant information and understand relationships. They look for evidence. They conduct SWOT analyses. They evaluate and distinguish between secondary and root causes of a problem, and recommend a course of action. They create surveys and conduct in-depth interviews. They communicate their research in writing and in oral presentations. This is just to name a few of the things they do.

In this process, the higher-order critical thinking skills, such as analysis and evaluation, are clearly front and centre. The focus on skills is key to investigations in Social Studies, and indeed the humanities more broadly.

Dr Paulo always asks his pupils in class, "does this source help to answer your research question? Is this a reliable source? Can the evidence be trusted? Can you identify any bias? What other questions does this source raise?”

These are crucial questions for students as they conduct their research. They are immediately relevant to the quality of conclusions the students will reach, and the arguments they will craft, the essay they will write. This mindset, this focus on evidence and argument, both challenges and supports students to think critically every step of the way.

More often than not, complex questions have complex answers. And complex problems demand complex solutions. It takes time and effort to polish one’s critical thinking skills. Pupils benefit greatly from the guidance and supervision of teachers, PhDs, who have themselves a rich experience of problem-solving, of academic rigour, and project work.


Cultivate your problem-solving skills

Dr Paulo told the author that he is often more concerned with his pupils' ability to ask thought-provoking questions, to problem-solve, and to recommend a course of action, than with purely factual knowledge they might have. “What can you do with the knowledge you have?” is a question he often asks his students.

The work his students do in grade 7 is exemplary of this.

Here, students identify global warming as a problem. To do so, they must show evidence of the problem. “How do you know global warming is actually happening?” In other words, students must identify the ‘symptoms’ of a problem to prove that the problem is real. When researching global warming, for example, pupils first must present evidence of melting glaciers and ice caps, extreme weather, and more. Much like a research supervisor, Dr Paulo points his pupils to relevant sources to find the latest research in the field. 

Next, students follow a problem-solving model to understand causes and later evaluate a course of action. This is no easy task, but, as Dr Paulo says, “the world needs problem-solvers.” If students can understand ‘how’ to solve problems, and how to apply problem-solving models to real-world problems, they can go on to address the concerns of today and tomorrow. Students are invited to identify the immediate causes of global warming, as well as the deeper, root causes, and to understand the chains of cause and effect. Deforestation is an interesting case in point. Deforestation is a major cause of rising temperatures and students are invited to examine just how the two are linked. 

However, students come to the realisation that deforestation is itself a consequence of the world’s meat-based diet. They conclude that one cannot address global warming without addressing meat consumption. Thus, students develop the ability to distinguish the root causes from the secondary causes of a problem.


As students begin to consider courses of action to address this problem, they turn their attention to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. They analyse and evaluate other solutions as well, from different perspectives – from global to national, to local. This investigation allows students to reach their own conclusions, which they communicate in the form of oral presentations and argumentative essays.

As they develop their ability to identify a problem, a question in need of an answer, to understand the many levels of that problem, and then to propose a solution and recommend a course of action, students prepare not only for the world of work but also for the world of tomorrow.


Life is Interdisciplinary

Dr Paulo's distinctive learning experience makes his classroom teaching unique. He really does come across as a curious, inquisitive mind. This curiosity drives him to constantly explore the world around him and to question why things are the way they are, to ask the really big questions.

“The really interesting questions,” he says, “have got to be answered from multiple perspectives, from different disciplines. It is a collective effort.”


Curiosity-driven interdisciplinary research

Dr Paulo’s own educational experience gives good evidence of a strong interdisciplinary background centred in the humanities. He read social sciences at university and had the opportunity to study classical anthropology, sociology, and political science, before deciding to write a final paper in the latter. He later switched track to history for his postgraduate research.

“I wasn’t so much interested in political institutions, or political parties – my friends were all writing up questionnaires and conducting surveys in parliament – but I very much enjoyed examining political ideas, such as freedom and independence.” 

He was curious to know more about political independence movements in South America, and in Brazil, in particular. “Why did Brazil choose to maintain a monarchical regime after independence from Portugal, whilst all other former European colonies in the Americas became republics, opting for democratic forms of government? What did the concept of freedom mean in the context of the political independence movements? This became the starting point of his academic research.


It was curiosity that drove him to conduct research beyond his first years of higher education. He had questions and wanted answers.

In his research on Brazilian independence, he found that the majority of the political leaders of the time read their degrees at one and the same university in Coimbra, Portugal, where the absolute monarchy kept tight control over their studies. Portuguese and Brazilian students could only study at that one university, and only men were eligible. How did that one institution influence the leaders of Brazil’s independence movement?

To answer this question, he had to migrate to the faculty of history. And this is precisely what led him to pursue a master's degree and later a doctorate in history, at King’s College London.


The really interesting questions do not have only one answer

Students have much to benefit, including a deeper understanding of ‘the big issues’, when schools promote interdisciplinary inquiry.

Dr Paulo believes that the purpose of the division of knowledge into different disciplines is not to compartmentalise knowledge, but to allow for greater depth of exploration into certain aspects of reality. Of course, one consequence of this is that different disciplines will emphasise certain frameworks of explanation over others – for the neuroscientist, life can be explained by brain activity, whereas the sociologist will argue that everything is a social construct. The truth, however, is that life is a great deal more complex, and one can only fully understand reality from multiple perspectives, and multiple disciplines. We can build a better understanding of the world around us with an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge.

Moreover, in modern universities, interdisciplinary approaches are now entirely commonplace. Even when research into the same phenomenon is compartmentalised, it generally goes without saying that only the joint efforts of researchers from different disciplines can lead to a full understanding of reality.

Dr Paulo illustrates this with an example from the work done by students in grade 6. Students are asked to evaluate the role of the Himalayas on ancient Chinese civilisation.

On the surface, and only on the surface, this seems like the sort of question one might expect from a geography classroom. However, this exploration can just as easily consider the impact of the mountains on trade and the economy of ancient China.

The Himalayas have always had a major influence on Chinese climate conditions. Good weather is good for farming, and with good harvests come a surplus of goods. If there is a surplus, there can also be trade. So, one really cannot understand the role of the Himalayas from a single perspective. “This is how, an economist can contribute to a question asked by a geographer. And even how an anthropologist, a sociologist, and a range of other researchers will have something to contribute to a better understanding of the same phenomenon.”




As a PhD, Dr Paulo has a strong sense of faith, and when we talked about the meaning of life, he said that he appreciated Socrates's statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living." This statement defines his attitude towards life.

Our conversation also veered more broadly to Chinese culture and the Chinese language. Dr Paulo says he is studying Chinese characters and is very interested in Chinese pictographs. As he said this, he picked up a pen and began to write some characters, showing off his early understanding of the "principles" of character formation. Although they are only the simplest characters, he says he likes the imagery and the message embodied in Chinese writing. He says also that he plans to get a good view of the mountains and rivers in China and immerse himself in Chinese culture during his stay with us.

For Dr Paulo a PhD is not the end of an individual's education. He continues to be curious about learning, and to ask other questions, to inquire. He is a tireless explorer of life and of the world around us. He leads our students by example and tries to show our Huili values is everything that he does. This is the best education for our children.

We deeply felt that an excellent educational background, solid experience of scientific research, and broad, inquisitive mindset are some of the biggest benefits of a PhD in school. Just the kind of thing our students need to keep pace with the times they live in.

PhDs use their doctoral qualities to teach and enlighten pupils, to encourage pupils to enter the halls of higher education. They inspire pupils to explore and to ask their own questions. And to make their own contributions to life, to society, to meaning. We see this more and more at Huili School Shanghai, and we are all very excited about the future of our own pupils.


Article | Virginia