Observations on Education in China


Oct_2006_1Harmonious Learning for the Whole Child: Education Perspective from China leads one Education Update reader to reflect on her own experiences as an educator in China:

As an educator with more than thirty years experience in North American schools at all levels (from primary to post graduate), I was intrigued this year to have the chance to teach for six months in China, as a professor in a joint-venture school between Canadian, American, and Chinese partners. My experience allowed me to observe and communicate with young Chinese students in college at a time when the rate of change in their country is explosive.

My first rule for myself was, “Observe lots, conclude little.”

Essentially, observing any aspect of Chinese life today is like watching change in progress. As was so clearly outlined by ASCD President Richard Hanzella–education is not excluded from this phenomena, and “Harmonious Learning for the Whole Child” is a set of clearly defined goals for today’s Chinese educators.

English Edge in the New China

Since I was working at the college level, I observed the results of a system largely developed before the current policy of “opening and reform.” Fortunately, I had the opportunity to teach First, Second, and Third year students in subject areas (Philosophy / Ethics) that invited discussion and exchange. Equally fortunate for me, was the willingness of my students to engage, question, and contribute to my understanding while they learned “how Westerners think.” Fully aware of the massive change taking place in their country, these young Business students recognized that an understanding of the West will put them at a huge advantage as they move into “The New China.”

For many students, learning English was both a political, and personal goal. As many told me, their grandparents had spoken Chinese and Russian, and their parents spoke only Chinese. Even in restaurants and on the street, we were approached frequently by polite young Chinese who were eager to speak English to us and to discuss any “Western ideas” that they might use to increase their global understanding. When we visited a new theme park in the northeast region of the country, at every line, young Chinese parents would proudly push forward their children who were learning English at school. We soon memorized the exact wording of some of their dialogues . . .

Hello, how are you?
Fine thank you, and you?
I too am fine, thank you.
What is your favourite food? Do you prefer McDonald’s or KFC?

Frequently, very young children would recite the whole dialogue without any pause for response while their beaming parents looked on with pride and approval.

A Language Gap

While the youngest generation of Chinese students are studying English from age five or even earlier, my students had begun learning the language at age twelve. Having been taught by non-native speakers in large classes, they were, nevertheless, eager and proud to tackle college courses taught in their second language. Armed with the latest in electronic translator dictionaries, they approached complex written assignments with enthusiasm and determination.

The results were not always as intended. I was puzzled as to why a Business assignment kept introducing a “missionary” as part of the team and finally in discussion with the writer discovered that this was the translation for “an outside expert brought in to make change,” . . . a consultant. Colloquial expressions were also challenging, but my students worked hard to employ them, nonetheless. Hearing an observation like, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” spoken with great seriousness, and in a strong Chinese accent, caused me to realize how strange and difficult some of my day-to-day expressions must be for them.

Women Outpace Men Academically

Having considerable experience studying gender differences in learning, and having been Head of a girls’ school; I was eager to observe the learning styles and achievement of young women in a culture with a long history of preference for males and, indeed, a serious gap between the predictable number of female births and those actually recorded.

In my classes, the gender breakdown was close to fifty-fifty with slightly more boys. The classroom behavior of the sexes was very different but not, in fact, unlike that in many North American High Schools. The women tended to sit at the front, took many notes, answered only when directly called upon, and were much more tentative in expressing opinions. Male students tended toward the back of the class, were more “cool” in their behavior, quick to volunteer answers, and even challenged the teacher.

In all my classes, women obtained higher marks than men, but were much more likely to be dissatisfied with their results. In discussion with both male and female students, I learned that students in all classes were ranked, and that women were at the top in almost all areas. The women were modest when discussing this fact. The men seemed surprised, but not concerned. In discussion groups where we focused on job search strategies, the men initially expressed confidence in their abilities and certainty that they would successfully find employment. However, in deeper discussion, students of both genders expressed confusion about “how things work” in international companies, and nostalgia for old ways when the rules were clearer.

Cooperative Learning

Another area of interest to me was the degree to which students educated in a Communist environment would work cooperatively and in groups. My expectation that cooperative behavior would come easily, and group work would be comfortable for them, was confirmed in most situations. Students worked well together, requested group work, and while high marks were valued, seemed always ready to help a classmate who was absent from class or having a specific difficulty. This “helpfulness” frequently exceeded teacher expectations and led to behavior many western schools might judge as unfair or even cheating. Students willingly and regularly lent and copied assignments that had been missed, doing this so openly that it was difficult to suggest that this might not be helpful to the learning process. It seemed very clear that there was no sense that one student’s success was bought at the cost another student’s failure. This attitude impacted methodologies used for assessment and, in the long run, made the classroom culture positive and cooperative.

Hot (or Not) Topics

There were many issues in the Philosophy / Ethics course that lent themselves to interesting, cross-cultural observations. Abortion, for instance, was a non-starter as a discussion question. It was seen as a practical decision unrelated to moral judgments. Equal pay for equal work was viewed as an academic issue that had little relationship to any expected reality. Euthanasia, particularly in the context of the very old and sick, was discussed with great emotion. It was obvious respect for the elderly and an awareness of limited family and state resources for health care caused a moral dilemma in the minds of these young people, to whom grandparents were loved and revered figures. All topics related to environmental concerns were addressed with great seriousness, and it was obvious that the students were well-aware and deeply concerned about these issues.

Hope Actuated

I went to China with a stereotypical expectation that my students would be more compliant, less actively involved, and possibly more polite than their North American counterparts. The reality was somewhat different. My students were eager to learn, polite to me as a guest in their country, but as lively, opinionated and personally confident as any other students I have taught. They were excited and somewhat anxious about the transformational changes in China, but express great love and pride in their country, and confidence in the future that it will provide. As in all good teaching situations, I learned at least as much as I taught, and returned to Canada with very hopeful and positive feelings about China’s emergence as a world power.

As always, open, caring, and positive young people engender a sense of hope in the future. Opportunities for more frequent student and teacher exchanges with this fascinating country should help make this hope a powerful reality.

Submitted by Carol A. Kirby, PhD, retired Head of School of Elmwood School in Ottawa in 2003. Currently an Educational Counsellor and Consultant in private practice, and ASCD member for three years.