Previously, when I thought of China, the last thing I thought of was teaching and learning. Instead, I thought of the countless imprints at Wal-Mart that read made in China, America’s own suffering Gross Domestic Product, or, embarrassingly, John Woo’s Hong Kong action flicks from the late 80s. So, when I was asked by Vanderbilt and Metro Nashville Public Schools to travel to the People’s Republic of China so that I could help share insight on developing and fostering Chinese students’ critical and abstract thinking skills, while collaborating with Chinese teachers on incorporating 21st century teaching pedagogies, I was excited and perplexed.
See, I was under the impression, mostly due to our media and the U.S.’s own wild sense of paranoia, that Chinese students were quite possibly some of the world’s most perfect students. I’d heard of intense, even robot-like study habits, coupled with razor-sharp focus and a determination that would make the hardest pentathlon champion blush. Like I said, my perception was set and the thought of me teaching any Chinese student, let alone teachers, seemed absolutely ridiculous.
However, day one in Guangzhou, China, sitting front and center at South China Normal University listening to Professor Wu explain the Chinese government’s paralyzing fear that their own education system is producing a nation of factory workers not creative types, I felt my head was going to explode: Paradigm Shift. Due to my limited space allotted here on this blog, I’ll keep my rug-pulling awakening brief. Basically, Chinese teachers lecture, students listen and write down information, regurgitate that information on a standardized test, then based on this test score attend a post-secondary school which will ultimately determine their lives’ fate – literally. That is a succinct yet fairly accurate description of a Chinese student’s academic career. Sit. Listen. Write. Sit. Listen. Write. Sit. Well, you get the picture. Are the students focused? I guess. Are they robot-like in terms of work ethic? They have to be – the fate of their lives depends on it (this is no hyperbole).
Therefore, the rest of my time spent in Guangzhou was helping teachers appreciate the value of questioning, incorporating cross-curricular lessons and project-based group learning, all while infusing a bit of fun in an otherwise stale learning environment. My perceptions were again shattered at not only the students’ willingness to try and accept this frenetic, inquiry-based approach to learning but also at the Chinese teachers’ desire and appreciation for a fresh, right-brain approach to teaching and learning. At the risk of sounding of corny, I felt like I was making a difference. Sitting with my American educators at dinner, over a fresh plate of bok choy, I would smile and share the untapped love of learning and teaching the Chinese were experiencing. As an educator it was rejuvenating.
And then reality set in…
My American team and I couldn’t help dance around the irony of the Chinese government seeking out help from the perceived cutting-edge educators from the West in order to propel their country into the 21st century. I then realized that just as my perceptions were vastly skewed, so were theirs. America’s own educational system is orbiting around standardized test scores, sit-and-get pedagogy, and answers being more important than questions. Here I was doing my best trying to help Chinese teachers turn their students into the creators of the iPod not just the manufacturer, while back in the states our own academic stagnation was turning our students into regurgitation robots.
I’m frequently asked about my trip to China, and the reality is there were so many takeaways, both personally and professionally. However, only one truly keeps me awake at night: China realizes what it will take in order to be the world’s #1 powerhouse as we advance deeper into the 21st century. They even realize and respect the fact that the United States has the ideologies and pedagogies it will take in order to fulfill this prophecy. Then the irony sets back in. Will America realize and respect the imperative ideologies and pedagogies it will take in order to compete in tomorrow’s global climate?