On Foreign Land
“Ni hao, welcome to Meten, you are our new Foreign Teacher”. Six months ago, I was welcomed into a Chinese language school like a member of a family. With glass walls, comfy chairs and professional students, the school is situated in the centre of Shenyang, north-east China.
Everything was new to me: the food on the menu, the chaotic sound of car horns, the towering buildings. Although, the locals were helpful and helped accommodate me into my new environment.
While trying to find my bearing amidst this new cultural landscape, however, I was unaware a storm was advancing. The same attitudes and beliefs, and skills and abilities which had been cultivated through years of western education were proving problematic in my school.
Members of staff gave teaching workshops. Wanting to help, I shared my opinions. But my direct manner was sometimes interpreted as offensive.
Another more serious problem was growing. My teaching style, seeded in the CELTA and seasoned by the PGCE, made some students feel uncomfortable. Neither the students nor the teachers told me about this, not until the storm arrived.
As the winds picked up and panic started to fill my head, I knew in order to survive I had to survey my environment, I had to understand it, I had to adapt.
The thorn in my foot came by the name of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher dating from 551 B.C. and whose ideas laid the foundations for modern Asian culture. Confucius spread many values found today in China, such as the importance of education, respect for tradition and thrift. I appreciate these values.
But there are other values which conflicted with my own: hierarchy, collectivism, uncertainty avoidance. China has a high power distance (PDI) ranking. PDI indicates how the lower level members of social hierarchies accept and expect power to be distributed unequally. I was taught to think for myself and to voice my views – known as individualism; but the Chinese prioritise the group and only the most influential members speak up. Chinese people also prefer to avoid uncertainty, which can be difficult for problem-based tasks.
With so many conflicting views between my students and me, my style and theirs, I decided to look to the experts for guidance. I searched the names that fill teachers’ shelves to learn how I could change my style. Jim Scrivener suggested teachers have several roles including: the explainer, involver, and enabler.
However, these roles, based on Scrivener´s explanation, seem to plot out a teacher´s journey, from the unconfident explainer who lacks teaching methods and experience to the confident and well-resourced enabler. Yet most of the Chinese people I talked with told me the same story: their teachers taught them from the front of the class and they had to learn by rote. Could this mean most Chinese teachers lack teaching methods, are inexperienced and are unconfident? I doubted it.
Oracles of the Orient
I realised I had to disregard foreign dogmas. I searched for experts situated on Chinese soil. Soon, I found local opinions on teaching styles, learning styles and why they are currently dominant.
In 2002, Lingbiao Gao and David Watkins found that the teaching styles in China range from: student-centred – conduct guidance and attitude promotion; to teacher-centred – exam preparation and knowledge delivery.
Unfortunately, most teachers lecture in classes because of the importance placed on examinations. Students have exams for nearly all subjects. When their hearts are not thumping and hands quivering during exams, their eye-lids hang heavy and eyes red from 12-hour days of study and exam practice.
One Chinese teacher said “As a teacher, my main task in the classroom is to ensure that my students can get good marks in the matriculation examination, because this is the most important or even the only aspect by which the school authority assesses my teaching”.
Although the opinions shared above gave me a greater insight into Chinese classrooms, they only answered why classes are taught from the front. I wanted to understand more than this: I wanted to know what the students preferred because they are the true experts of what they want and with that knowledge I could adapt my teaching.
To do this, I surveyed thirty students in my school. In the survey, students selected options for the typical Chinese classroom and options for their ideal classroom. By comparing the two, I gained an insight into how classes are typically taught and how students want to learn.
The Typical Chinese Classroom
This graph shows that most respondents view the typical Chinese classroom as a place where: teachers talk a lot and students talk little. They see it as a place where students work individually. Reading and writing take equal priority while speaking and listening are seconded. Respondents also agree that most classes serve exams.
The Ideal Classroom
The students responded that in their ideal classroom: teachers talk some of the time with students talking more often with their teacher and with their peers. There would be less individual work, in favour of more pair-work and much more group work. The precedence of reading and writing would be reversed, with speaking and listening becoming the prerogative. The emphasis on exams would be shift to fluency.
The Storm Settles
After analysing the surveys and thinking about Confucius, I realised there was not very much I had to change. I felt I had been hard on my westernised education and, actually, the CELTA and PGCE did put me in good stead. All I was taught about good teaching and a good learning environment, such as student-centred teaching, are what these students want. The problem arose from how I setup and taught the classes. In Chinese culture, I am viewed as the eminent member of the class. Therefore, I must give structure and guide the lessons. By giving just enough structure, I have been able to soothe students into more engaging and interactive roles and the student-centred approach.
I learnt some other things too: there are no universal laws in teaching nor are there good or bad teaching approaches, techniques or methods – they all have their place.
Article and quote source:
Gao, L. and Watkins, D. (2002) Conceptions of teaching held by school science teachers in P.R. China: Identification and cross-cultural comparisons. International Journal of Science Education, 24(1), pp. 61-79.