School Choice & Charters Opinion

Lessons From Chinese Classrooms

By Deborah Meier — June 14, 2012 5 min read
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Deborah Meier is traveling in South Africa this week. She wrote this blog post before she left.

Dear Diane,

I wish I had read Nancy Pine’s Educating Young Giants, What Kids Learn (and Don’t Learn) in China and America before I went to China in 2007! But it fits neatly with my thoughts from last week.

It’s a thoughtful and thorough account that starts with classrooms in both nations that come alive in her telling. She has a familiarity with both, and a breadth in both, that makes her efforts to draw from them very credible. And she’s a good storyteller as she shows how her understanding unfolds over the years.

Starting in 1990 (more or less) both the United States and China began to consider major pedagogical reforms that started from a base about as far apart from each other as they could be. And each embarked on reforms that were even intentionally efforts to introduce—or mimic—each other’s educational approaches. Its focus is the classroom, but of course issues of testing, certifying, et al go along with it, including who makes what decisions. Much of the book reminded me of what I saw and heard on my recent trip to Japan.

Nancy Pine and I weren’t always in sync—I’m more skeptical than she is about China’s belief in the reachability of all children. Pine tries hard to be nonpartisan, and I suspect she truly does see ways in which both approaches need aspects of the other’s!

Of course, it’s harder to characterize American classrooms as there is undoubtedly a much greater range in the USA than in the state-dominated Chinese system, and again between small rural Chinese schools that have difficulty finding teachers and whose families may be only partially literate and schooling in Beijing. (Although I was startled to discover that there were many children in Beijing who could not attend its public schools because they were unauthorized “immigrants” from the Chinese rural communities.)

My description last week of my preferred style of traveling and teaching—with its unexpected shifts, surprises, and side trips—is a perfect, if extreme, example of what Pine is observing. In two ways.

First, I couldn’t provide ahead of time a detailed map of my trip nor what I hoped to accomplish. While I have prepared my mind by doing some scattered reading that prepares me in some ways (and wish, like Pine, that I spoke the language), I’m hoping that the experiences will actually overturn some of my prior expectations. And leave me with even more questions for, ideally, many more visits. In contrast, some friends of mine take guided group tours that are pre-planned to the last iota, with almost no room for variation. In addition, the guides, if well-trained and expert enough, generally have developed a sense of pretty much exactly what’s more or less important for tourists to notice. Some tours allow side trips, especially probably for American tourists.

The Chinese teachers were thus able to plan and rehearse their presentations to perfection before they deliver them to children. They work on them with colleagues and revise them accordingly. They stick closely to the script, and the text. They move very linearly from beginning to end, expecting their students to give expected and proper responses. They are direct, tough, and even a moment’s distraction may lead to embarrassment and confusion. There is no deviating from the text/task on hand, no side stories, anecdotes, etc. There is relatively little spontaneity—nor is it desired.

In contrast, the American teacher comes in with a prepared overview of what she will be doing, including any slides or visuals she hopes to use as well as handouts. Her presentation is generally fairly short (maybe 10 minutes vs. 40 in China). She is likely to accept a range of responses, some of which are entirely off base, many of which relate to personal experiences without rejecting any. Or this is often the way she was trained and does not always stick to such kind neutrality in my experience. But I recognize her description. A good deal of time is spent then on making a connection between the children’s conceptual framework and personal experience and the subject at hand. Sometimes, as a result, the teacher is distracted—often willingly or purposely—by something unexpected and which draws everyone’s interest. Not everything intended to be “covered” is thus always covered in fact. There is a good deal of spontaneity by teachers and students.

What both countries seem to be engaged in is how to move closer to the other, without losing the strengths of each. And, of course, their “purposes” are not wholly in synch. Both want to strengthen their economies, but the Chinese state schools are not trying also to produce feisty and critical citizens for a democracy.

Maybe more like the way I now travel (in my old age). An itinerary which we pretty much stick to, but with as many surprises and side trips as seem too exciting to pass up. And, of course, we have to be at the airport in time to leave. (Both U.S. and Chinese airlines have “no excuses” policies.)

Are they like the “boot camp” charters I often complain about? No. (Although I was never in a 100 percent low-income rural school where China’s poorest live.) What I saw, in fact, required the kind of training that no Teach for America teacher comes with, and few would like because it’s not a script that the Chinese teachers that Pine describes are working off. Rather they are working off in-depth knowledge of the material. Less so the children. And vastly more time set aside for teacher-talk!

Just as I used to sometimes envy and admire colleagues whose students lined up perfectly and had meticulous classrooms, so I found myself moved by the precision and doggedness of the classrooms Pine brings to life. But I had learned, from my daughter’s great 3rd grade teacher, that perfect line-ups, spontaneity, and depth can come together nicely. And perhaps that was because she also knew each child so well.

Thank you, Mrs. B., for showing me something important as we imagine a different kind of school system, one that is public, but that also allows for a range of practice that may be hard to compare and rank-order for those who want a “one best” way. One instead that encourages crossovers—learning from, rather than competing with and demonizing each other.

Unlikely? But possible.


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