Thursday, December 06, 2012
China Bridge Delegation: Reflections On Educational Policy and Practice in China and the United States
From November 7-15, I traveled to China as part of the 2012 Chinese Bridge Delegation to China. This was a unique opportunity to visit Chinese schools, dialogue with teachers and educational leaders, and learn firsthand about contemporary Chinese educational policy and practice. My perceptions remain fresh and unrefined, yet I would like to share a few thoughts:
First, regarding Chinese policy, it was reported to us that new curricular reforms are intended to produce more hands-on, experiential learning. Further, they aim to develop students’ critical/analytical and communicative/collaborative skills. Interestingly, Chinese leaders articulated the importance of developing the “whole child,” although we suspected certain differences in how we define these and other terms. Importantly, all delegates were left indelibly impressed that the Chinese view a strong education system as critical to individual and collective success.
With respect to Chinese practice, our observations suggest these goals are not yet fully reflected in practice; classroom instruction tended to be teacher-directed and linear. For instance, in a Primary Art class, approximately 35 students sat in rows and followed along as their teacher worked step by step, engaged in Jhianzhi (paper cutting). By contrast, some American educators (classroom observers) immediately began folding and cutting the paper as they desired, with no reference to the classroom directions. Even the ‘play’ that we observed in morning exercise on the playground was organized and structured according to class, with a prescribed group activity set for each. Altogether, I perceived that certain reforms are “easier said than done” as they require shifting educators’ mindsets and gradually developing certain skills. Potentially, logistical changes (e.g., smaller class sizes) may be important as well.
Still, Chinese policies and practices are interesting when juxtaposed against what is occurring in the United States. From an international comparative perspective, it would appear that we are advantaged in certain key areas, and disadvantaged in others. Moreover, in my view, some areas of U.S. educational advantage may be weakening as direct or indirect effects of current policy in each nation.
For example, I am concerned about the implications of curricular narrowing in the U.S. (a function of NCLB). Some argue that the U.S. system has historically shown relative strength in its development of creative/innovative, critical thinking adults. This, in turn, has contributed to American economic prosperity. Recent policy, however, has caused many educators to “teach to the test” and administrators and officials to alter instructional programming toward items and areas that are measured by state-required tests. Arts programs, for instance, have been cut and recess time decreased or eliminated in many places. Beware: such measures may create a context less conducive to creative and interpersonal development. This, in turn, may ultimately amount to an unwise squandering of international educational strength/advantage, at the same time that Chinese educators and policymakers wisely pursue opposite aims.
Another area of Chinese advantage (or disadvantage, depending ultimately upon the efficacy of reforms) lies in its ability to quickly and sweepingly reform its systems. In the U.S., it is much more difficult to make fundamental changes; the U.S. system is layered and complex, with multiple powerful players and stakeholders involved. In China, structure and hierarchy are clear, and reform documents have immediate and far-reaching impacts.
Lastly, I left with strengthened conviction that the study of Chinese language and culture should occur in American schools. The school district in which I work includes Chinese programming, including a partial-immersion program. It is heartening to learn that the study of Chinese in U.S. schools has markedly increased (see here); however, the Chinese students’ study of English still positively dwarfs the American study of Chinese – indeed, Jon Huntsman Jr. estimated that currently there are more English speakers in China than in the United States.
China, a nation “on the rise,” rightly views its educational system as central to its present and future. It is crucial that American citizens and policymakers continue to view education likewise. Moreover, it is essential that we pursue policies that not only aim to address perceived failings of our system, but that aim to nurture or grow our considerable strengths.
By: Joel Malin