Education Opinion

Proof: Kid-Centered, Non-Textbook, Deep Learning is Possible in Rural China

By Jessica Shyu — March 16, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In the beginning, I too was that starry-eyed, 22-year-old teacher who couldn’t stop talking about all the amazing projects, hands-on learning and after-school activities I was going to lead. I just couldn’t figure out why so many of my veteran colleagues on the Navajo Nation would listen, laugh and kindly give my brilliant ideas a smack down.

After two months of teaching, I got it.

The school wouldn’t give me more teaching time. I was told I had to follow the Scholastic reading workbooks verbatim. My students didn’t want to do after-school activities. Above all, I really sucked at teaching.

I was defeated and felt all my big ideas were impossible. I cried a lot.

But after awhile, I found proof that this was possible. I obsessed over Jaime Escalante, KIPP Schools and Harlem Children’s Zone. I watched teachers at my school and across America relentlessly and creatively making the “impossible” come true for their kids. I saw my own students relentlessly and creatively make their own “impossible” situations a reality.

I’ve believed in the “impossible” ever since. But whenever I hear teachers lament how things are impossible to change, I still get it.

Especially when we’re in rural China, where we don’t have that well of “proof” or super-star teacher proof points I had access to all those years ago, and when nearly everything seems “impossible”... whether it’s because your students are in class from 7 am until 10 pm and there’s no “time” for anything beyond the textbook, let alone after-school activities... or because you and your principal will lose your jobs if you don’t stick to the rote curriculum and drive the test scores up... or simply because there aren’t enough seats in the local high school this year and the likelihood of your students who are already 3 grade-levels behind to cut it is pretty bleak.

Nevertheless, it is possible. And we have proof for the times we don’t have belief or energy. Rural China Education Foundation (RCEF) does many beautiful things with local educators in rural China, but one of the most surprising are their videos they’ve created of local teachers leading students in rural China in a variety of rigorous project-based learning activities.

One video showed how a teacher used the one-hour that her students had between evening classes and bed to improve their research, writing, science and critical thinking skills by centering a project around... snails. Another video illustrated how another school restructured their literature, math and science classes to develop stronger higher-order thinking skills through learning about sweet potatoes. Most inspiring was that all of the videos were examples of how local teachers in rural communities in China were innovating within their contexts.

Last month, I watched RCEF present to our first- and second-year Teach For China teachers about how they led students in these higher-order thinking activities while navigating similar constraints. After the session, half a dozen teachers approached me admitting that it wasn’t until then that they saw how it could possible and therefore necessary to do. After all, this is why they joined Teach For China in the first place.

We might not have any Jaime Escalante-style super stars yet in rural China (that I know of), but at least we have access to proof beyond Teach For China that student-centered, project-based learning that foster critical thinking are indeed possible, even in our tricky contexts. Sometimes all you need is a little proof to keep the stars in your eyes.

Note: If you know of any Jaime Escalante-style super stars of rural China, please let us know. We’re constantly collecting and learning from awesome proof points beyond our own walls.

The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.