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[EDUCATION] Yin & Yang of Teaching / U.S. vs. China

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  • madchinaman
    China, U.S. taking notes on education Experts are trying to adapt the strengths of two differing systems -- the yin and yang of teaching styles. By Mitchell
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 8, 2007
      China, U.S. taking notes on education
      Experts are trying to adapt the strengths of two differing systems --
      the yin and yang of teaching styles.
      By Mitchell Landsberg, Times Staff Writer


      In many ways, China and the United States represent the yin and yang
      of international education. Whereas China's top-down system places
      supreme emphasis on tightly structured, disciplined learning, the
      United States has a highly decentralized system that places greater
      importance on critical thinking and "student-centered" learning.


      WAYAO, CHINA — Light snow speckled the bare dirt courtyard outside
      teacher Cai Limei's fifth-grade classroom. Inside, an ancient
      radiator was barely warm to the touch.

      The classroom at the Gaoyakou Central Primary School, about an hour
      outside Beijing and not far from the Great Wall, was as austere as it
      was cold. Little more than a Chinese flag and a blackboard served for
      ornamentation. Yet the students, bundled in colorful parkas and
      scarves, were bubbling excitedly as they sat in knots of twos and
      threes, trying to come up with answers to a series of grammar

      An American teacher walking into this room might be put off by the
      lack of creature comforts, but surely would recognize the teaching
      methods being deployed by Cai, an enthusiastic 27-year-old in a
      puffy, shin-length blue coat.

      And with good reason. Although she teaches at a school that outwardly
      appears little changed from the days of Maoist indoctrination, Cai is
      on the cutting edge of Chinese educational reform, using methods
      based on those used in the United States.

      "In my time as a student," she said, "we accepted only what we were
      taught." Now, as a teacher, she tries to encourage "more active
      thinking," letting students figure out answers for themselves.

      "It's better now," she said.

      The best of both worlds

      In many ways, China and the United States represent the yin and yang
      of international education. Whereas China's top-down system places
      supreme emphasis on tightly structured, disciplined learning, the
      United States has a highly decentralized system that places greater
      importance on critical thinking and "student-centered" learning.

      Still, in recent years, the Chinese and American systems have been
      taking baby steps toward each other, learning and adapting what the
      other does best.

      American educators have been exploring why Chinese and other Asian
      students do so well in math and science, and trying to apply some of
      their findings to U.S. classrooms.

      The Chinese, in turn, are trying to distill the American genius for
      innovation, recognizing that, for all its faults, the U.S.
      educational system is unrivaled at turning out creative minds —
      inventors, filmmakers, rock 'n' roll stars and Nobel laureates among

      "The two systems cannot totally merge," said Zhou Mansheng, who
      studies the American educational system in his role as deputy
      director of China's National Center for Educational Development
      Research. "What they can do is have a very deep understanding of each
      other's educational systems and try to learn from them."

      Math, the Chinese way

      Thousands of American educators have visited China in recent years,
      meeting with education officials and shuttling to showcase schools
      selected by the government. These trips have led to changes in some
      American schools and a general consensus among education leaders that
      more change is needed, especially in the teaching of math.

      At the root of the difference is the idea, in Chinese and other East
      Asian math curricula, "that there is a very small body of factual
      mathematics that students need to learn, but they need to learn it
      really, really well," said R. James Milgram, professor emeritus of
      mathematics at Stanford University and one of the authors of
      California's public school math standards.

      Last fall, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics adopted a
      policy that urges American schools to focus math studies on just
      three basic topics in each grade from pre-kindergarten through
      eighth. That idea, Milgram said, comes from Asian curricula. However,
      he said, American schools will have a difficult time emulating their
      Asian counterparts unless they sharply improve the math abilities of
      primary school teachers.

      China has a powerful, millenniums-old tradition of education that is
      woven deep into its societal DNA. But just as that can't be bottled
      and shipped, neither is it easy for a society such China's to mine
      the best of the American educational tradition.

      That hasn't stopping it from trying.

      Under the leadership of Zhou and his colleagues, China's educational
      system has been undergoing a major overhaul since 1999, when the
      government recognized that the country's explosive economic growth
      could not be sustained without a better-educated workforce. It set
      out to improve the educational system from bottom to top — upgrading
      rural schools, quintupling the size of its university system and,
      perhaps most radically, bringing more critical thinking and
      creativity into its classrooms.

      "China wants to become a big nation of innovation in the 21st
      century," Zhou said in an interview in Beijing. "To meet this
      objective, China wants to cultivate more creative talent."

      To do this, the Education Ministry has revamped the national
      curriculum and begun training teachers in a more interactive style.
      There will be less rote learning, more give-and-take with teachers,
      and more exercises such as the one at the Gaoyakou Central Primary
      School, where the students learn in groups.

      "This is very difficult for them to do," said Vivian Stewart, vice
      president for education at the Asia Society, a New York-based
      organization that promotes U.S. relations with Asia. "Given the class
      sizes that they have" — Chinese schools often have 50 or 60 students
      per class — "it's very difficult to think about doing a lot of
      projects and discussion-oriented pedagogy."

      That said, "it's a very organized society, and when they set their
      mind to go in a particular direction, they are able to drive things
      in that direction," Stewart said.

      New textbooks for old

      The change is coming slowly to the Changping No. 2 Middle School.
      This high school is considered one of the best in the nation. The
      school, on an attractive, well-equipped campus in a modern, if
      heavily polluted, suburb of Beijing, it has 450 students, more than
      95% of whom are expected to go to college.

      Administrators and teachers say they are committed to reforming their
      curriculum, but they are clearly in no hurry. New textbooks are
      scheduled to arrive next year; in the meantime, "we are in the middle
      of changing from the old way to the new way," said Vice Principal Sun

      The difference is not immediately noticeable in classes, where
      students tend to sit in traditional-style rows of desks and listen to
      lectures. Math teacher Yang Guihong, a tall, willowy woman, said she
      had changed her teaching to make it "more practical," more connected
      to everyday life.

      "The point is, we make the students curious first," she explained
      through an interpreter, "then we tell them what to do."

      By most measures, her students are well ahead of their U.S.
      counterparts. Her first-year students — the equivalent of American
      10th-graders — are studying trigonometry and set theory; her second-
      year students have moved on to linear programming, among other

      Down the hall, students in Wang Yu's English class are listening to
      the teacher read from a textbook, and reciting translations about,
      among other things, American high school dropouts.

      "Most high school students," Wang reads, "drop out of school because
      a) they have failing grades b) they take no interest in classes c)
      they are discriminated against d) they are lazy and not intelligent."

      The correct answer, he says, is B.

      Outside class, several students say that despite having taken English
      classes since third grade, they can't speak the language — the
      result, they say, of an educational system that is aimed primarily at
      preparing them for college entrance exams.

      "There's too much focus on the grammar and very little on actual
      communication," said Yang Huan, 17, speaking through an interpreter.

      The students agree that they have seen scant signs of reform.

      "I feel like a lot of what we learn is not practical, and not usable
      after we graduate," said Pei Pei, 16, a tall, thin girl with glasses.

      The Gaoyakou school sits at the bottom of an imposing hill in the
      modest farming village of Wayao.

      The slightly ramshackle school buildings and plain classrooms are a
      far cry from those at Changping. They bear little evidence that the
      calendar has flipped much past the 1970s. Whereas nearly all the
      students at Changping are expected to go to college, roughly a third
      of the students in Wayao are expected to drop out before high school.

      But perhaps because they have less to lose, the mostly young staff at
      the Gaoyakou school has embraced the new curriculum with enthusiasm.
      Zhang Shuhong, a 31-year-old who is the equivalent of a vice
      principal, said the school adopted new textbooks and a new curriculum
      in 2004. Many of the teachers are fresh out of college, where they
      learned the new teaching methods, and needed no prodding to employ

      "I think it's better than before," Zhang said. "It's more adaptable
      to students' development."

      The new way, he said, "encourages students' open thinking…. Before,
      we just made kids memorize things. Now, they memorize less and think
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