Thoughts about China in the late 1980s

The following is a two part series, today and tomorrow. I had just come back from China and was enrolled in Dr. Robert Beck’s education class at the University of Minnesota on the Minneapolis campus.  I wrote this essay the winter of 1989. The Tiananmen Square incident was waiting to happen in the spring. I had two years of teaching in China and did not know what was going on under the surface for many of my university students as well as all throughout China.  See what you think might be similar or different from Kazakhstan and their teaching methodologies.

During my two years of teaching English in China, I learned a lot about my own teaching. Of course I had taken courses in college to learn “how” to teach as all good American teachers are taught to do.  However, when I went to China, it was not uncommon for American teachers to compare notes on “how” the Chinese teachers taught. So close yet to the years of the Cultural Revolution atrocities, these Chinese teachers had been programmed by the Communist party on “what” to teach. Many of the older teachers in my Foreign Language Department had taught Russian before. Now they had learned English as yet another foreign language and were expected to teach that. They were affectionately termed “Russian Retreads” by a fellow American teacher. I lived in Harbin, China which is close to Russia and had been pioneered and industrialized by the Russians less than 100 years ago. The White Russians who had fled from Russia after 1917 were very influential in Harbin.

My teaching experience in Harbin may be uncommon to most other parts of China in many ways, but the same Chinese method of teaching was used in all the classrooms. The following quote from one of my writing students last year will show that he noted a difference in methods of teaching. I do admit it is complimentary to me and that is why I copied it from his journal to mine. But I use his own words because the difference in teaching had not escaped him and I am sure he had not been taught that there was a difference in our methodologies.

“I feel happy and relaxed when we have foreign teacher’s class. I don’t know the reason; perhaps their method of teaching is success[ful]. I am used to the custom of Chinese; the total feeling is the serious, lack of humor. Maybe because of this, the young students lack an inventive ability. So I think we not only learn knowledge from foreign teachers but learn the bright and cheerful disposition.”

I will give a brief overview of the difference between the Chinese and American methodologies of teaching. First of all, instruction in the American classroom is student-centered. The teacher learns how to elicit thinking by asking the students questions and validating each response as a valuable contribution to the class. For the Chinese instructor, the me-centered responses and judgments made by the students are irrelevant. In China, education is teacher-centered and only the teacher has valid judgments. The teacher gives out pre-packaged information. According to John Dewey, supposedly the father of western education, he believed that teaching was a way of stimulating students to do their own thinking. The learners are encouraged to discover answers on their own after the teacher has facilitated in making the information available to them to process.

This was obvious to me after I would ask a series of questions about the material and have my Chinese students’ faces turned down, too afraid to respond. To try to get a discussion going was not easy, in fact, near impossible. They were so ready for me as the teacher to pour the information into their opened heads.

The second difference that I saw which goes along with my first point is that I would seek differing points of view only to get the prevailing party line. In China, the teacher has absolute authority, because in the States the teacher encourages a diversity of opinions. I would have my students give speeches on different subjects and soon I heard the same political statement over and over again. If I, as the American teacher, was not going to be the absolute authority, what came through in their speeches was pure, party doctrine. According to Clark Kerr and what he wrote in 1978, the Chinese government has taught them since they were in day care centers and kindergarten what to say and do.

The third view that I saw prevalent in the classroom which was different from what I was accustomed to was that any given body of knowledge is finite. The Chinese have had thousands of years’ experience holding to a very rigid and narrow scheme of scholasticism, according to Ho Yen Sun in a book printed in 1913.  The mark of the best educated man in China was the one who knew the classics inside and out. It was not theirs to question or analyze by practical application, but this finite body of knowledge was there to memorize. Memorize they did, the Chinese have memorized their culture.

My suspicion is that this memory of the classics dates back to 231-201 B.C. when Mencius and his philosophy had many schools of thought contending for power. It was when Emperor Shi Hwang Ti ordered that all the ancient books be burned, including those of Confucius, that the existing system of education was ended.  Supposedly this tyrannical ruler had also ordered 460 scholars be burned alive along with their books.

When Emperor Kao-Ti came into power during the Han dynasty, he realized the importance of education. As a reversal to the earlier order, he called for a search of the lost writings. Old scholars were prevailed upon to remember, old walls were razed to find old books concealed in them, according to Ho Yen Sun. Perhaps this can explain the source of how the textbook became so revered by the Chinese. It continues to be the central focus in the classroom setting.

In my teaching experience, I was assigned a textbook to teach from in my writing class. There were chapters that I chose and printed up in a syllabus. Knowing that skipping around in the textbook was going against the sensibilities of my Chinese students, I kept reminding them that we did not have time to cover all the points in the book, we were just going to hit the high points. I did not hear any objections directed to me about this but I did feel guilty because I knew of the importance of the WHOLE textbook.

The passion to learn the entire book according to the Chinese system results in some problems where the students amass a great deal of book knowledge but then they are not able to analyze and tackle problems. Practical application is what I kept driving home to my writing students; no amount of memorizing was going to help them to be better writers. I wanted them to keep writing in their journals so I could find out where they were. Learning everything by rote also inhibits the students from being creative. That is a necessary attribute when applying researching skills in the new areas of science and technology, according to Gu Mingyuan.”

(to be continued)

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