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.


International Studies said...

The trip to China can easily be described as the most fun two and a half weeks of my life. The culture of the Chinese people along with the great attitudes of my fellow classmates and the friendly nature of our chaperons all contributed toward the everlasting experience in China.

Fred M. Niell, EdD said...

Joel, thank you for your insightful essay. I visited PRC in 2004 and met with officials from the Ministry of Education. They said essentially what you have related, that their educational methods are stifling, that their gaokao culture makes creativity difficult, and that they intend to reform. For them that meant becoming "More like the US system." When I commented that NCLB had us shifting toward a "Chinese system" and that we might pass like two ships in the night, he laughed, and said, "We have talked of such ships before around this table, and you American educators are wrong to move toward more testing."
There are efforts in China to reform at the secondary level, I spent the last academic year in Beijing working with one. But education, like just about everything else in China, is awash with corruption and fraud, and an amazing level of highly sophisticated passive resistance to change. I do not see much change from 2004, and do not expect much in the next decade or so. Like much in China, there will be the public face and showy example, but the system will not, on the whole, change. There are currently more students in schools in China than the entire population of the US. Literally millions of corrupt administrators, service companies and petty officials have grown rich over the past 30 years off this system, and they will not relinquish control easily.
Fred M. Niell, EdD