My thoughts in the late 1980s on China’s pedagogy

The following is part of a paper I wrote for my education professor back in the winter of 1989. I had just returned from Harbin, China the summer of 1988 and wanted to finish my M.A. degree at the University of Minnesota.  I already knew what my thesis paper was going to be on.  I was looking at the learning styles of Chinese students in the academic setting in the U.S. and how they necessarily made their adjustments to our kind of pedagogy. I had three roommates who were Chinese, one from mainland and the other two from Taiwan. I was surrounded by a campus that had over 800 Chinese students studying at Minnesota.  That was the biggest delegation of Chinese students at an American university, it still may be 25 years later.

The reason I am writing this on my blog is to find out from people in Kazakhstan whether there are any similarities or differences in what I wrote yesterday and today.  I welcome your comments.

“My last point is how the Chinese students view grammar and vocabulary as all important. Since I taught in the Institute of Technology (Chinese version of M.I.T.), I had students in the sciences. Their knowledge of the technical language of English was very specific and specialized. They maybe knew 3,000 to 4,000 English words but did not know how to put words together to speak one sentence. Their want to amass a huge vocabulary in English probably goes back to their own having to learn so many Chinese characters from such an early age. There are about 50,000 characters in the Chinese dictionary, to be considered an intellectual you need to know about 15,000 of those characters. The common Chinese person to read the newspaper needs to know about 3,000 characters. Therefore, there is a heavy emphasis on knowing words and grammar.

The Chinese teachers who had to teach English to their classes clung desperately to the small part of text and made sure they knew all the grammar points possible.  This goes back to the teacher being the absolute authority and in total command of the classroom. If the students should even dare to ask that the teacher might not know how to answer, the teacher would most assuredly lose face. This was to be avoided at all costs so they presumed that we, as native speakers of English, knew all the answers to English grammar. (smile) We were asked a lot of grammar questions.

Our American approach to foreign language study is different in that we would still pay attention to grammar and vocabulary but more so to application of the language. Trial and error is permissible in the American setting and this goes back to the student-centered concept of learning.  (It also hearkens back to our land was created by many immigrant groups who arrived and struggled to learn English as their second language)

After many attempts at changing from Confucian thoughts, through surviving revolutions, the Confucian influence is still prevalent within the Chinese classroom. It continues to be teacher-centered, textbook-centered and grammar-centered. Perhaps the Chinese will try to adopt some of our teaching methodologies to aid in their attempt to quickly learn the English language. However, I believe that for the most part, education is culture bound. The Chinese culture can no more get rid of Confucian ways any more than we can relinquish Socratic influences in our own educational system. The two are very dissimilar and yet both methodologies have the same goal in mind, to teach those that want to learn.”

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