Recently I spent 10 days in China, mostly in Shenzhen for a conference but also two days in Xi’an, the ancient capital and home of the terracotta warriors, for my own touristy pleasure. I was invited to China because my previous school district established a partnership with a school in Shenzhen during my tenure that involves placing teachers there and the Chinese students, staff and parents visiting Richmond for one month annually. The Shenzhen authorities consider it to be the most successful international class in the city of 20 million, which is China’s richest and home to 20% of its PhD’s.
The teachers in the program change each year and generally they are very young, sometimes straight out of University, and yet their students always do exceptionally well. In fact, they get the top results in the school, and often the city, in the annual city exams, not only in English but also in every other subject, including Math and Chinese. This is not because they are a select group – in fact they are quite typical of the school – so what might explain this astounding success (even in subjects that the Canadian teachers do not teach)?
My opinion, which is based on discussion with the teachers and students over the years, is that the source of the success lies in a way of thinking about learning and about the role of a teacher that is common to teachers in the Richmond School District, and I presume others, rather than the attributes of any particular teacher or the specifics of their personal pedagogy. In my remarks – which have to make sense across language and cultural differences, and are therefore boiled down to essentials – I suggested it was because all of the teachers we have sent believe that:
- the classroom should be a safe, supportive community
- children should frequently work together in small groups; there should be lots of conversation; and teachers should work with the students in their groups;
- mistakes should be welcomed as opportunities to learn; and children should be encouraged to ask for help from the teacher and also to help each other;
- students should respect the teacher and the teacher must also respect the students; because respect is a basic value, there is less need for large numbers of rules and self-discipline should be the focus; and
- homework should be limited so students have time for exercise and other activities and are able to get lots of sleep so they are ready to actively engage in learning in school the next day.
These familiar beliefs are, in fact, quite radical in the Chinese context. Other North American educators at the conference who had just completed a fairly extensive tour of China commented to me that in most schools they say a relatively rote form of learning but that in Shenzhen they saw much more active and engaged classrooms – but even here these ideas are generally seen as innovative.
Initially, students, parents and other staff were very nervous and doubtful about the efficacy of a student-centered approach, but over the years understanding has grown and many of the staff have begun to incorporate elements of the “Canadian practice” into their own pedagogy in ways that make sense to them. Such observation, reflection and adaptation is the the only way for educational ideas to cross borders – direct importation doesn’t work and, in any event, the local teachers have lots to add to them.
The notion of group work is perhaps the one that has been most widely adapted and which the native teachers of Math and Chinese feel has been responsible for the increase in exam results. The idea that homework should be limited, on the other hand, is still treated skeptically!
What is most common between the Chinese and Canadian contexts is the passionate concern that parents and teacher share for the children and youth in their care. All the surface features of local behaviour and educational practice pale in the face of this universal, which provides a solid foundation for our communication and mutual learning.