For the past week, I have been following James Fallows’ blog discussion about the state of Chinese education, which was mainly prompted by an op-ed piece written by Randy Pollock, a former USC lecturer who taught MBA  students in China, and shares his thoughts on the limits of the Chinese education system.  Mr. Pollock’s main point is that Chinese students are the products of an education system that “rarely stressed or rewarded critical thinking or inventiveness”.  

As you all know from reading my blog, I have been teaching for the past year in Lingnan College, which is the business school at Sun Yat-sen University (中山大学) here in Guangzhou.  I find myself vigorously nodding my head in agreement with many of the observations and comments I have read on Mr. Fallows’ blog about the experiences of other teachers here in China.  However, with all of the talk about the shortcomings of the system, the stifling effects of preparing for the Gaokao (高考),  and students’ seeming awareness of the system’s shortcomings, I think it’s important to note some of the exceptions within the system (such as the comments by Benjamin, a foreign English teacher in China) and think more about why these exceptions exist and what can be done to capitalize on them.

I mainly teach undergraduate business students (with a smattering of graduate students studying economics) who wound up studying business because they received relatively high scores on the Gaokao that deemed them too intelligent to study something as silly or wasteful as anthropology or history.  Instead they get to study International Trade, Public Finance, Insurance, and Supply Chain Management, all extremely interesting and mind-bending disciplines.   Whenever I ask my students if they like what they study, I am greeted with groans and sighs about how boring their classes are.  One of my students from last semester spent the winter quarter studying at UCLA and took classes about social welfare and communication, which she found far more interesting than her business classes here at SYSU.  At lunch last week, I asked her what she wanted to do after she graduated next year and she said she wanted to continue studying overseas.  Naturally I asked if he wanted to pursue further study in business or economics and with an emphatic shake of her head said most certainly not.  The takeaway from these reactions and discussions is that the Chinese educational system predicated upon preparing for one life-altering exam and then using that exam to dictate the future career path of its students creates a system of highly dispirited students uninterested in learning for learning’s sake.  

As an American who has gone through all levels of the American educational system from public school to university to graduate school, I am the product of all its strengths and weaknesses.  From teaching students raised in a completely different educational culture emphasizing only one right answer, harmony in the classroom, a focus on authority (the teacher), and a lack of choice or control over one’s future, my own eyes have been opened to the good and bad things about my own education.  One of the most glaring differences is that from the moment we enter school in America, we are taught to question.  Whether at the end of a lesson or throughout a class, the teacher is always soliciting questions from students.  When I ask my students if they have any questions, most times I get blank stares and almost never get interrupted during class by a student with a question.  Yet when I meet my students for office hours or after class, they pepper me with questions or confess that there were ideas in a reading that they did not understand.  I then ask why they do not raise their hands and ask in front of the entire class and once again I either get a blank look as if that is most alien concept I could have ever presented or they tell me that they thought it would be rude to interrupt me, even though I constantly remind them that we are in an American classroom when I am teaching and I want them to interrupt me because their questions indicate they are interested or curious about what we are studying.  Still, even with this coaxing, I have yet to be interrupted by a student in the middle of my class.

In my classroom, I have two simple goals: one is to get my students to either think critically about things they already know or to take an interest in something that they may never have thought about and the second is to get them comfortable to question and critique both me and their fellow classmates on thoughts and ideas.  Both have been difficult tasks, but both have guided my teaching this past year.  The first goal has been easier to accomplish because I can choose the topics we will cover in a semester, such as the unit on American culture we just completed with Hua Hsu’s “The End of White America” as  the primary source material used to spark discussion.  At the end of the unit, I received emails from students telling me that they learned new things about American culture that they did not know and found it extremely interesting.  There was one way to push the boundaries of what my students think about.  

The second goal of getting students comfortable with expressing their opinions that might be at odds with their classmates is more difficult because it smacks up against Hu Jintao’s desire to build a “harmonious society” (和谐社会), which has been successfully and deeply ingrained into the psyche of my students.  Almost every conversation about any topic comes back around to the idea of harmony and the importance of maintaining a harmonious society.  We just had a debate whether the Chinese government should provide bilingual education to minority students and the side against this proposition claimed that bilingual education cut against the goal of a harmonious society.  We we talked about culture in China, harmony was presented as one of Chinese society’s values.  Those who have read previous posts of mine on harmony know my take on this idea; harmony is the new opiate of the masses.  Anyway, I digress.  To break on through this harmonious wall, I have planned debates and simulations to get my students to think critically about an issue, and more importantly, to learn how to successfully and passionately argue for something that they may not personally believe in, while also learning how to engage and constructively argue with their classmates.  Last semester I held peer editing sessions for certain writing assignments and my students were loathe to really say anything constructively critical about their classmates’ writing because that would not be harmonious.  This semester, we had a climate change simulation where one side was China and the other the US.  To let my students playing the US, I told them that they were acting and that the more convincing that they were as the US, the better their grade would be.  The reason I stressed the acting part of the simulation and their grade was to assuage any guilt they may feel for representing interests that might be construed as unpatriotic and anti-China.  This tactic seemed to work because my students surpassed my expectations as they represented the US in this simulation.

As a foreign teacher, most students seem to use my classroom as a safe space to test out their own ideas and to interact with a teacher in a way that they would not do with their Chinese professors.  The challenge as a foreign teacher is to design the opportunities to make this interaction possible and to challenge my students in a way that is engaging and of interest to them.  From all of the previous posts I read on Mr. Fallows’ blog, it seems that most Chinese students are so burnt out from a system that cares little about the development of individuality and critical thinking, that by the time they get to university, they just want to grasp the golden ring of a lucrative job or overseas study and be done with their Chinese education.   So perhaps a better way to re-frame this challenge is to figure out a way to re-ignite the spark in these university students that gets their creative juices flowing and inspires them to work to bring change to a system that is extremely entrenched and reluctant to change.

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The Gay is Okay

March 31, 2009

Yesterday in my U.S. Government class we were discussing political parties and the executive branch.  We had our students take a quiz that determines their political leanings according to their agreement with 25 statements.  For our students, the concepts of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican mean absolutely nothing to them and we were trying to give them some context for the U.S political system when they read the news.

To give them some additional context, we talked about the traditional platforms of both parties and then had the students line up to form a human spectrum on various issues depending on whether their views adhered more closely to Democrats or Republicans.  Then we asked the students why they agreed or disagreed with the particular part of the platform.

Gay rights, specifically gay marriage caused the greatest controversy.  Asking our students their views on taxes, the economic stimulus, abortion, foreign policy, or even immigration and it was next to impossible to elicit any real opinion.  But when gay rights came up, the class burst into a cacophony of sounds.  Two of our students stood on the Republican side of the room and declared that gay marriage was “weird” and that marriage should be between a man and a woman, while supporting equal rights in other areas.  They sounded eerily like some of the Republicans in the States, though I wonder how “weird” would go over as justification for denying the same rights to gay people as offered to everyone else.

On the other side of the room were the seven other students who were quite vocal about equal rights for all.  As one of our students, aptly named unintentionally Witty put it, “the gay is okay” and to discriminate is wrong.  At that point, I wanted to shout out that it is okay and then put that slogan on a shirt and wear it around school.  Perhaps it would make some of the students hiding in the closet feel better about themselves.  We have one student in our class who we suspect is questioning his sexuality and at one point in yesterday’s class, he spoke up and declared that being gay is “normal” and there is nothing weird about it.

This debate went on for about 15 minutes and it was the most animated I had seen my students all semester.  Who knew that gay rights would be the issue to get them wound up?  The debate ended when even those siding with the Republican views admitted that society may change, which was a hopeful conclusion to the discussion.

PS – In continuing with the trend of our students testing us, at the end of class Jimmy asked us what Americans thought about Tibet and how our time in China may have changed our opinions on Tibet.  We made it clear that we could not speak for all Americans, even though our students seem to think we are the mouthpiece of America and offered some vague and nebulous answer.

The Holidays in GZ

December 27, 2008

The Dancing Santa with Saxophone in 江南西

The Dancing Santa with Saxophone in 江南西

Thursday marked the end of my first semester here at SYSU.  In each of my last classes, I said goodbye to my students and thanked them for a great semester.  These were definitely the most relaxed classes of the semester because the final assignments had been handed in and there was no pressure to perform on the students’ parts.  With this more relaxed atmosphere, my students also decided to ask all of the personal questions that they had been dying to ask all semester:

“Are you married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Oooh, your friend (who happens to be a girl) is coming to visit, is she going to become your girlfriend?”
“What are you going to do when you’re down teaching in China?”
“Why don’t pick one or two of the students in class to be your girlfriend?”
“When are you going to get married?”
“Is Celia (the other fellow I teach with) your girlfriend?”
“Do you like Chinese girls?”

My GZ Class

My GZ Class

It was open season for my students and most of the questions were answered honestly, but without revealing anything about my personal preferences.  It was nice to see my students let their guard down and all of my classes wanted end of the semester class pictures, as well as individual pictures with their English teacher.  I felt like I was surrounded by paparazzi with all the camera phones going off around me.

It was also Christmas on Thursday, which I discovered is treated as a second Valentine’s Day here in China.  Couples go out on dates, presents are exchanged, and not an ounce of religion or family comes into the day.  It makes sense since Chinese New Year (春节) is next month and that is the major family holiday in China, celebrating the coming of spring.  Of course there are Christmas decorations all over and I am sure they will be up for the next month unlike in the US where the decorations are gone as soon as the holiday is over, perhaps save for the tree at Rockerfeller Center.

Myself and the three other fellows had a Chrismukkah dinner Thursday night  Hanna and I brought the latkes and noodle kugel, while Alexa and Celia brought ratatouille and meatballs cooked in a lentil, carrot, and onion stew.  We then went to a Christmas Party thrown by some of the guys from Princeton in Asia who are here working in GZ.  Like many gatherings with a large number of Chinese people, upon walking in to the party we had to introduce ourselves in Chinese with twenty pairs of eyes on us as we did so.  All the while I was wondering why we couldn’t just walk into the party and naturally mingle.  Mind you, we also showed up nearly two hours late, so the party was well under way by the time we got there.

With the end of the semester comes grading, so let the grading begin.

Family Chrismukkah Dinner

Family Chrismukkah Dinner

Happy Holidays from GZ

Happy Holidays from GZ

I woke up this morning to an email from a former Yale-China fellow currently working in Hong Kong for a human rights organization that Professor Ai Xiaoming, a professor here at SYSU was “taken away” by the police last Wednesday for signing Charter 08.  Here’s a link to the news story about Professor Ai’s arrest and others who signed Charter 08.

Charter 08 doesn’t just call on the government to reform the current system, but “for an end to some of its essential features, including one-party rule, and their replacement with a system based on human rights and democracy.”  A link to the English translation of the document can be found in The  New York Review of Books.

We had drinks with Professor Ai back in October and now she has been arrested by the police.  It’s almost too easy to think everything is fine in China and people might actually be getting more freedoms because they can buy Starbucks coffee and meet in smoky bars to talk about political reforms, but then you’re jolted into remembering that you are living under an authoritarian regime that will arrest anyone who they deem to be a threat to their rule.  However, it’s one thing to read in the New York Times about political dissidents and intellectuals being arrested in China, but when someone you know has been arrested, it hits home in a way that is practically indescribable.  I now know someone who was arrested by the Chinese government for being deemed a political agitator and what really brings it home is that she lives just down the street from me on campus.

This is just another part of the China experience, but one part that I really wish was not so.  I hope Professor Ai is okay, wherever she may be at the moment.