China Series

A version of this story was published as part of monthly series that ran in the Warrensburg, MO The Daily Star Journal from Oct. 2000 through May 2001.

China's Educational System: America's Past and Future?

"And, not least of all," I wrote last summer in stating why we were coming to China, "it seems like an opportunity for us perhaps to make a difference in the future of the world in which we all live."

My firm expectation was that, through classroom instruction, we had a real shot at having that impact.

The question I have received most, from the states, over the last month deals with teaching here. This space is not adequate to tell the story that answers the question. The drama is more on the order of ,"To Sir with Love." So, for now, I will only speak to the elements of the saga.

Sara and I each have a 12 hour teaching load. Classes meet for two-hour blocks. I have six classes. Sara has five courses with one meeting twice a week. Class size is twenty students per section, giving me 120 unique individuals to teach each semester. Generalizing on them, of course, is unwise.

I'm only teaching two different course titles. One is titled Oral English where my students are in their first-year; the other is English Topical Discussion peopled by Juniors and Seniors. Sara teaches Writing as well as Oral English to different age groups.

The Foreign Affairs College does not "mainstream" in any sense of the word. Students in one major stay together for four years, attending the same classes from the same instructors at the same time.

And this fool rushes in: My students are bright, speak understandable English with a college-level vocabulary, know a lot of general, but highly distorted, information about the USA, and have middle-school level skills in crucial communication areas.

The Chinese method of instruction is ridged and relies on rote memory. The students' thinking, at least as reflected in their use of English, is very either/or and they have limited ability with differences in word meanings produced by altering contexts.

The challenge has been greater than I first expected. The intellectual task was complicated by the attitudes of the seniors. They were under intense pressure because, here, everything is determined by exit exams. Since my instruction did not directly help them on those exams, many perceived the class as a waste of their time. They openly studied their test manuals, talking among themselves in Chinese, while I tried to teach them.

Their goal is graduate study in the USA and they think in terms of Harvard and Yale. Influenced by the Education Testing Service to believe that entrance exams are also all important in the USA , they have spent much time and money in preparing for the Graduate Records Exam expecting that a high-test score will guarantee them the good and easy life as ivy-league graduate students.

Their booklets and classes on the entrance exams exemplified the problems of "teaching to the tests." They stress learning through rote processes, without providing underlying abilities.

I started my new classes this semester with a focus on how tests would be used in determining their grades; it was a basis they could clearly understand. So, this semester is going more smoothly although helping these students to assimilate information remains, as it was in the US, a struggle.

In education, the successes are less obvious than in movies. We have to take them in little doses, one student at a time.

At semester break, Shan Shan, a first year student, said to me something similar to what I had heard from students in the US, "I had difficulty understanding you in the beginning. No one has taught us to think before. Now I appreciate what you are doing for us."

Like Mondays, students are the same around the world. Every one is different, but all are very much the same.