International Opinion

Great Teachers in the U.S. and China: What Do They Do?

By Anthony Jackson — May 23, 2014 4 min read
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As cultural comparisons among educational systems have taken front and center stage in the media and educational research, a fundamental question can be asked: What distinguishes quality educational systems across the world? Researchers at The College of William and Mary, Yunnan Normal University in Kunming, China, and the University of Connecticut have studied the similarities and differences in the beliefs and practices of national award-winning teachers in the United States and China. Here is a report.

By Leslie Grant, James Stronge, and Xianxuan Xu

Sometimes classrooms seem like black boxes, we can only imagine what is happening behind those closed doors—both here and abroad. PISA or TIMSS results try to illuminate some differences in educational systems but this approach focuses only on outcomes of education. With that in mind, we set out to shine a light on the processes of education in the United States and China—two nations that are drastically different in demographics, history, political systems, and socioeconomic status—and also differ dramatically in teaching systems and instructional practices. We wanted to know: Which beliefs and practices of effective teachers cross the cultural divide? Which teacher beliefs and practices are unique to each culture?

In each country we purposefully selected national award-winning teachers diverse in geographic location, school level, content area, and experience so that we could see whether commonalities would emerge among them. In most cases we spent an entire day with the teachers, observing lessons, interviewing them, and talking with their administrators as well as peers.

We found that some characteristics connect the cultural divide while others are indicative of the culture in which the teachers teach:

  • Teachers in the U.S. and China cared about their students and viewed their relationships as central to student success.

    • Chinese teachers often spoke of their relationships with their students as that of a mother-child or sibling relationship. They saw their students as members of their families.
    • U.S. teachers spoke often of how they cared for their students but in terms of a teacher-student relationship.
  • In each country, teachers engaged in lifelong professional development.

    • In China one striking difference is the focus on collaborative work and engaging in peer observation as an integral aspect of professional development. They did not see professional development as divorced from the day-to-day work, rather, it was integrated on a daily basis through their collaborative work with other professionals in planning lessons together, observing one another teach, and offering a critique of the lessons. As an aside, when we observed Chinese teachers teach during the study, they often would ask us to provide a critique of their lessons.
    • U.S. teachers also engaged in professional development through coursework at universities, engaging in the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) process, reading books, and attending conferences. Professional development, in many cases, was an individual endeavor.

  • In both countries, teachers plan based on their curriculum and student needs, use mental models for planning, and allow their lessons to follow different paths.

    • All Chinese teachers in our study planned based on common student misconceptions. Based on past experience, they anticipated areas where students would have difficulty and planned for those difficult points.
    • The U.S. teachers reported planning more frequently based on how students performed on pre-assessments. They used the formative assessment process to adjust instruction.
  • Teachers in the U.S. and China used varied instructional activities (in fact, about nine instructional activities per lesson, on average), had highly engaged students, and focused on varying cognitive levels during instruction.

    • The most commonly used instructional activities in Chinese classrooms were questioning and lecture. However, these were not long lectures, but short bursts of lecture followed by independent or group practice.
    • The most commonly used instructional strategies in U.S. classrooms were questioning and students working in groups. Instructional strategies varied more across U.S. teachers than they did across Chinese teachers.

We also sought to explore factors that may have influenced our findings, for instance:

  • The U.S. and China reflect very different cultures. China is focused more on the collective while the U.S. is focused more on the individual. This impacts how teachers go about their work and the ways in which teachers teach.
  • While there are numerous common attributes, the structure of the educational systems in the two countries varies significantly. China has a highly centralized system of education. Meanwhile the United States is decentralized, with each state having its own system, and within many states there are hundreds of smaller district systems.
  • Additionally, class sizes in China are much larger, with an average of 50 students in a classroom. However, Chinese teachers teach fewer classes per week and have more planning time. On average, Chinese teachers teach 12-15 lessons per week whereas U.S. teachers teach 25.

Our study explored Chinese and U.S. classrooms in an effort to uncover similarities and differences in the beliefs and practices of these award-winning teachers. By illuminating the black box, we uncovered fascinating elements of teaching and learning in both countries.

The authors’ new book is West Meets East: Best Practices from Expert Teachers in the U.S. and China.

Leslie W. Grant, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, The College of William and Mary.

James H. Stronge, Ph.D., is Heritage Professor of Educational Leadership, The College of William and Mary.

Xianxuan Xu, Ph.D., is Research Associate, The College of William and Mary.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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.