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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Creative Thinking, Part One: A Traditional Country Flirts with Nontraditional Learning

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

I recently returned from a week in Beijing, where the Beijing Institute of Education was my host. I was there to do workshops around project learning, to visit Chinese schools, and to speak with Chinese educators, parents, and students. My collaborator in organizing this trip, and my translator through much of it, was Ren Wei, a professional facilitator and a new friend of mine who lives in Beijing. Project learning is our connecting point. Ren Wei translated the Buck Institute for Education's Project Based Learning Handbook into Chinese.

Credit: Jim Moulton

Recent curriculum reforms in China are creating a demand for new ways to engage students in deeper learning experiences. An effort is under way to transform Chinese education from a rigid, fact-based, lecture-and-drill model that includes super-high-stakes testing to a more student-centered model that features inquiry in a quest for deeper understanding, all without sacrificing factual content knowledge. Project learning is one of the models China is introducing, enthusiastically using resources from Edutopia.org, the Buck Institute for Education, and PBL-Online, the BIE's collaborative online project-learning resource.

Beyond the workshops I gave, I had the chance to visit diverse Chinese learning environments. I visited a public primary school, a public junior high school, a public high school, a private school for grades 1-8, an independent training center with a focus on creativity, and an internationally affiliated training center focused on English acquisition for ages 4-12.

In the public school settings, the incredibly well-ordered classrooms I spent time in struck me as something many teachers in America would lust after: Every child was attentive. There was no disruptive behavior. None. Zip. Zero. Students stood at their desks when called on to speak and sat back down only when the teacher gave permission. Ah, the sweet siren's song of absolute teacher control and total student compliance.

But then came my reality check. First off, I can imagine the quick pep talk before the class began: "Girls and boys, we are having a foreign visitor in our classroom today. He is here to learn about Chinese schools, so it is up to us to put forward a positive image of the Chinese classroom." Of course, any teacher in any country would do the same. So I know that I saw these classrooms on a very good day.

And although the teachers I observed were animated and obviously enjoyed teaching their kids, they did a vast majority of the talking, and the walking. Technology did play a significant role in every classroom I visited, but it was limited to teacher-created presentations displayed via the teacher's high-powered multimedia workstation connected to a massive high-definition screen or a digital projector and a screen.

Kids did speak up, but they did so generally only to answer questions, though the elementary school classrooms were much more open and active than the high school classrooms I visited. In one primary mathematics classroom, I did see several kids get the chance to explain their understanding of a newly introduced concept to the class via a document camera in the teacher's workstation. But this was the exception and not the rule; the majority of the teaching was of the chalk-and-talk variety, but digitally empowered with current presentation tools.

Please share your thoughts about this snapshot of Chinese education, and check back for the second part of this post.

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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Dana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! I am very interested in more of what the classroom was like in China. Obvioiusly, we have all gave our class that pep talk before a visitor comes. What grade can you recall and the curriculum being taught. Are they learning the same things? How many kids in class? Are the teachers highly qualified? Thanks, please respond. I'm interested.

Laurel Graves's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At first, this does sound blissful. All students are listening. They are not getting out of their seats, talking out of turn, or causing disruption to learning. But, it makes me wonder if the "talk and chalk" method is sparking their curiosity. Do they have a love of learning or a fear of the establishment? In the book "On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension", the authors, Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler, discuss the difference between schooling and learning. "Schooling is an "outside-in experience. It is a necessary part of a student's education. Schooling taught him how to follow rules, take turns, play safely, and interact respectfully with teachers and peers. Learning, however, is an "inside-out" process, in which students construct an understanding of themselves, their beliefs and values, and the world they live in." (pg.25)
In this Beijing school it sounds like they have the schooling part down. It is refreshing to hear that they are interested in learning more about project learning. I believe integrating that type of learning will make their students have a stronger sense of themselves and what they want to do with themselves.

Alicia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Students attending to the information, behaving appropriately,etc....who would not want their classroom to be this way? I agree that this, on first glimpse, sounds like a "dream" classroom. But, I wonder, are the students truly engaged in the work? Wolfe (2003) stated in his article Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation?, "Obviously, we do learn from reading and hearing, but the strongest connections are often made through concrete experience" (p. 4). So, my thinking is, what other teaching strategies did they use? Where they solely posing questions and allowing students to answer? We know that different students learn different ways. Some are auditory learners while others may be kinesthetic. For example, it is one thing to read and hear about different stages of water but another to actually experiment with the stages of water. My point is this: Even though the teachers and their classrooms demonstrated great classroom management skills (based on the passage), I wonder if they are truly reaching and pushing their students' thinking. As an educator, I often believe my role is not only to help students know facts and answer questions, but to build on their critical thinking and problem solving skills. My educational belief in how students learn is that students learn best by not only listening, but by asking questions about the world they live in, experimenting, and developing their own ideas. The principal at my school often says that the one who is doing the most talking is the one who is doing the most learning. Just a thought...

References:
Wolfe, P. (2003, Fall). Brain-compatible learning: Fad or foundation? Retrieved May 24, 2007, from http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/forum/fall03/brain.html

Simone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems as though this was quite an experience to be part of and observe.
However, I believe much of the experience can also be contributed to cultural differences. I know that within the Asian culture, respect for one's elders is highly emphasized. And, I am also aware that teachers in Asian cultures are looked upon and treated with extremely high regards in comparison to the American culture. Thus, could the classroom setting observed be much of the daily life embedded within the culture?

Janie Campbell, k-6 grade teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it interesting that we not only trade teaching and learning techniques from state to state in this country but to country to country. I think it is great if there is something that truly works well for one to share it with the other. However, I am seeing a constant trend of more of the northern states using some of the southern states teaching. Which is fine, unless you remember how the media, and political schema tells us that the students in New York for instance are much more eduated than those in Florida. So, my question is... Is there a difference in the student populations ability vs. demographics or is it truly the programs we use?

Kimberly Valentine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This must have been an interesting venture to see the difference in administration and instruction within the classroom. I recently had highschool Chinese students who have recounted their experience in school in China. They have claimed that they stayed in school until late in the evening; courses were conducted in a lecture style; and they would have very few assignments and tests, however, their homework would be checked daily. I am quite curious about the teaching methodology within elementary schools in China. I noticed in the picture presented, there seemed to be a lot of children in that particular class. Do children successfully learn concepts and ideas in such a large group?

Kimberly Valentine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This must have been an interesting venture to see the difference in administration and instruction within the classroom. I recently had highschool Chinese students who have recounted their experience in school in China. They have claimed that they stayed in school until late in the evening; courses were conducted in a lecture style; and they would have very few assignments and tests, however, their homework would be checked daily. I am quite curious about the teaching methodology within elementary schools in China. I noticed in the picture presented, there seemed to be a lot of children in that particular class. Do children successfully learn concepts and ideas in such a large group?

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very interested in learning more about the teachings in China. I was fortuante enough to begin a program through my district called Singapore Math. This program is designed to the teaching styles of professionals in China. I really enjoy the approach that is taken to teaching math and how to explain and break down word problems. I have implemented some of these teachings into my classroom and my students have been very successful. I not a firm believer in all students be so rigid during class discussions. I have very well disciplined room but my students are engaged in their learning and are not afraid to display their enthusiasm with my leassons. I feel that we need controll of our students but we also need to allow them to be active in their own learning.

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Simone -

My entire time in China was a wonderful experience - to be able to meet so many people across all levels of education in an environment so different from my "home base." Travel is the great educator, and on this trip I was educated abut education... I learned about learning.

As you suggest, the classroom was a clear reflection of the "way things are" in China - no question about it. The desire, at a high level, to move towards creativity is a huge step. Very different, and very bold...

It will be interesting to see how it unfolds. As I watch the worlds economies come unglued, I am convinced that creativity will be the key to recovery - we have a chance, as a result of the depth of the crisis, to make real change and not simply nibble around the edges.

I wonder if we can do it, or if the Chinese can do it, or if the Icelanders can do it...

Cheers.

Jim

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