Cultural Exchange Experience Informs Chinese Principal’s View of Education

By Sean Cavanagh — April 16, 2007 5 min read
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East meets West every day in the principal’s office at Jindao Middle School.

A miniature Chinese flag is propped atop Principal Peng Guohui’s desk, its yellow stars and red background symbolizing the Communist party and revolution. Next to it sits a brightly colored jar of tea, this country’s ancient, omnipresent potion.

Above his desk, hangs a photo of Mr. Peng and Pedro E. Garcia, the superintendent of schools in Nashville, Tenn. In an adjoining photo, Mr. Peng stands alongside Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Mr. Peng has overseen this public school, located in Guangzhou’s churning Lin Wan district, since 1999. He says it was one of the city’s lowest-performing schools when he arrived—he once described it as “backward”—but it has improved since then, most notably, the principal believes, because of the use of computer technology to supplement lessons in science, Chinese literature, and other subjects.

Last year, the Chinese middle school principal took part in a more personal form of educational advancement. He was selected to join a delegation of 14 principals from this southern Chinese metropolis to travel to Nashville to study American education and school leadership. The venture was organized by the Educational Leadership Learning Exchange program, which is run jointly by faculty members at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and South China Normal University in Guangzhou. It also arranged for a group of Tennessee principals to visit schools last summer in this sprawling city of 10 million people.

“This campus is small,” Mr. Peng explained through a translator, gesturing with one hand toward a door that opened to the school’s courtyard. “As principal, you have to have a global view and look at a lot more opinions.”

Several Chinese principals who took part in last year’s Nashville trip offered similar views. Recently, the Guangzhou participants in the learning-exchange program gathered for a reunion at a high school in their city, where they shared stories with me and reflected on their trip.

“Education is the sort of activity where you have to communicate with people,” said Hong Wang, the co-director of the program and the executive director of a principal-leadership- development center at South China Normal University. An exchange program, she said, “can open principals’ minds, it can broaden their visions.”

Comparing U.S. and Chinese Schools

Cultural exchanges such as the principals’ program, which would have been unthinkable a generation ago, are now blossoming across China. At Guangzhou No. 109 High School, Principal Zhang Zhongqing now proudly displays the flags of Australia, New Zealand, and other countries when visiting groups of foreign students come to his campus, which is often. Students’ understanding of the United States and other countries, he added, has changed dramatically.

In the past, “people would have had very absolutist views” of Americans, Mr. Zhang said. “The only thing we learned about the United States was that it was a powerful country, politically, economically, and militarily.”

Students use workbooks in a physics class at Jindao Middle School.

Today, at a time when American educators and elected officials are paying increasing attention to China—particularly how that nation teaches math and science—Mr. Peng came away from his trip to the United States with several clear impressions of the differences between Chinese and U.S. schools.

He agrees with critics who say Chinese schools rely too much on drills and rote learning, and do too little to cultivate students’ broader problem-solving abilities. He recalled visiting numerous Nashville physics and biology classes, in public and private schools, during his 2006 trip. He marveled at how biology teachers used plants and other simple organisms to integrate “real life” examples into science lessons.

Again and again, he saw American math and science teachers demand that students come up with solutions on their own in class, rather than having it spelled out for them. “The teachers were guiding them to resolve problems by themselves—not just telling them,” Mr. Peng recalled. “This is very rare in the Chinese classroom.”

But he also concluded that Chinese students are far more skilled in foundational math and science skills. In one middle school math class, he was surprised to see American students covering computation items that Chinese students would have mastered years earlier.

“It was too simple for grade 7,” he said. Students with skills that low, he added, were not likely to develop the kind of creative-thinking skills Americans are famous for, he added, because “knowledge acquisition is the basis for creativity.”

Promoting Equity and Technology Use

Much of Mr. Peng’s work at Jindao is about promoting equity. The school’s students are mostly from poor families, with parents who were farmers, but have since moved to the city in search of work. Many of those families live in the dense Lin Wan neighborhood that surrounds the school. Row after row of apartments, its occupants’ laundry hanging on lines to dry, can be seen outside Mr. Peng’s office window.

Many Jindao students live close enough to the school to bike home for lunch during the mid-day break.

Mr. Peng believes one effective way he can help students succeed is through the use of educational technology. Since he became principal, the Jindao school has added computers to many classes, including physics labs, where computers are built into students’ desks. The students use the computers to do lab simulations; one simulation I witnessed allowed students to test the flow of electricity on a circuit, under different conditions. With computers, students can manipulate experiments in ways that are more flexible than working with traditional lab equipment, Mr. Peng says.

Back in his office, he demonstrated another technology tool. The principal projected a computerized image on a wall of Lu Xun, one of the most prominent Chinese writers of the 20th century, which appeared on a password-protected Web site run by the school. Students taking the school’s Chinese literature courses can call up various written materials online and use the Web site to work on reading and grammar skills.

When we spoke during my visit to his school, however, Mr. Peng felt obligated to defend his school’s use of technology. He had recently read a story from an American newspaper about a federal study showing that the use of technology did not improve student performance in math and reading.

Why, he asked me, would this American study focus only on reading and math? “This is not objective,” he said, shaking his head for emphasis. Technology, he added, “can help students learn more effectively, help teachers teach more effectively.”

“The key point,” Mr. Peng said, “is you have to use technology in a proper way. Don’t just expect it to be colorful or fun.”

That, undoubtedly, is a perspective shared by many educators in the United States.

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