Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

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
Related Tags:

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tammy -

I agree that the right place is probably, as it always seems to be, somewhere in the middle... A

re you ready for Summerhill? http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/ Perhaps not.

But what about Benezet's experiment in mathematics instruction in Manchester, NH in the 1930's? http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/sanjoy/benezet/

I always look for balance between independence and responsibility, hoping to see a classroom where teachers and students meet in the middle as learners.

Cheers.

Jim

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a rewarding experience this must have been. I would love the opportunity to observe educational systems in many different countries and within many different cultures. Although we, as educators, all have the same goal to prepare our students for life beyond high school, we all go about it so differently. If we could pull the best practices and methods from every culture and how their educational systems are run, we would all be better off. However, we have to deal with the cards we're dealt and make adjustments to our curriculum as each new set of students walks through our doors. Thanks for the glance into Chinese education.

Stacey 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can imagine that upon first look that these classes must have seemed like a teacher's dream. I know that there are times when every teacher wishes that her students would listen attentively and soak in what it is they need to know. However, I know that there is nothing more exciting than watching a student or a small group of students really get into a project or activity and make discoveries on their own. They take ownership over their learning and can hardly wait to tell their classmates, parents and other teachers what they have learned. I think that when a student learns by doing they are also learning how to learn. Teaching a child how to learn and problem solve is what helps them to become life long learners.

Adriana Basho's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Traveling to another country and observing their teaching environment is a great opportunity for a teacher to have. I believe through seeing others teach, one can reflect, as well as become better teachers. Although it is a teachers dream to have such an attentive class, I personally believe student reflection matters. Students should engage, think, and reflect in order for the teacher to know they understand the curriculum. Also, it's necessary to have students join in more ambitious and creative conceptual activity. Although I disagree with this type of teaching,I'm looking at it through a United States teacher's point of view.I have also had this opportunity since I taught in Albania for 18 years. The teaching method in Albania is about the same and it proves to be very effective and this could be the same for China. Different societies yield different styles of instruction.

Adriana Basho's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Traveling to another country and observing their teaching environment is a great opportunity for a teacher to have. I believe through seeing others teach, one can reflect, as well as become better teachers. Although it is a teachers dream to have such an attentive class, I personally believe student reflection matters. Students should engage, think, and reflect in order for the teacher to know they understand the curriculum. Also, it's necessary to have students join in more ambitious and creative conceptual activity. Although I disagree with this type of teaching,I'm looking at it through an United States teacher's point of view. I have also had this opportunity since I taught in Albania for 18 years. The teaching method in Albania is about the same and it proves to be very effective and this could be the same for China. Different societies yield different styles of instruction.

Yvonne Ademiluyi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bravo Jim. I applaud your efforts to trouble the still waters of educating our children-- 22nd century style. I can just about imagine the prompted attentiveness of the students in the classes you visited (to only have been a fly on the wall in the classes before you came). Well, I currently am a student at Walden University and I have read the discussion forum of at least two teachers in China who say their students are not so politely behaved. With this being the case, I am going to cautiously assume that children of all races, cultures and nationalities are in the need of more effective methods of reaching their psyche. These are little people exposed to a world that never before existed to mankind period. To turn on a television, read a magazine, listen to music, cruise the internet, or simply walk the streets a child is bombarded with much provocative clutter. Not to mention some of the horrific things these children face in their home lives. But when they are in class they have to shut themselves off from their real world - for which they will return to when they leave school at day's end; and sit perfectly still and hear another boring lecture on subjects they have no idea how it applies to their lives.

Yes, I am pro project based learning. I am not in a classroom full-time yet, because I am substituting in SC while waiting to fill an opening. However, with ever y possible chance, I get my students involved with learning. I am often walking around the class, rearranging seats, getting within safe distance of their faces, being active & animated and motivating them to do the same. I have found more subtle control of the classroom with this method. We may sometimes get a little loud, but we are productive. And after reading your reference to the actual PBL in practice ("Curtis," 2001) my 'can barely wait until I get into a classroom juices' started to flowing. I watched the video and saw students actively involved in learning- wow!! I saw education take on a 4th dimension - participating, strategizing, socializing, and yes-learning. I emphatically agree with the statement from Bruce Alberts ("Curtis," 2001)

"Everybody is motivated by challenge and solving problems, and we don't make use of that in schools enough," ... "Project-based learning gives everybody a chance to sort of mimic what scientists do, and that's exciting. And it's fun if it's done well."

Can you imagine a society full of young people (from all educational levels) beaming from the self accomplishment of completing tasks such as that of a highly intelligent scientist? Wow, Project Based Learning. If only the 'powers to be' can be convinced to steer a little away from standardized pedagogical methods.

Curtis, Diane, (2001). Start with the pyramid start with the pyramid. Retrieved

November 26, 2008, from http://www.edutopia.org/start-pyramid

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Adriana -

Yes, different cultures teach in different ways. Yet human brains develop in the same way. Here is a wonderful talk by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, given here in Maine in September of '08. http://www.mdf.org/mdf/Keynote%20presenter.html More food for becoming a better teacher. And a better parent...

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kimberly -

In response to your question, "Do children successfully learn concepts and ideas in such a large group?," several adults told me that the testing, which drives it all, focuses on the facts. My contacts consistently told me that currently it is far more important for Chinese students to have factual knowledge than deep conceptual understanding. That is the reason for the interest in PBL.

While here in America we say, "every student college ready," that is not the reality in China. Not all will go, and in fact there is not room should they all be able to...

Cheers.

Jim

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Alicia -

I often think that classroom teaching, in the average school, cannot, in honesty, be a democracy - to function it has to be a benevolent dictatorship. And because of that, the teacher has to make decisions about what strategies to sue with individual students, with whole group, with sections, etc... Your mention of water makes me think what it would be like to learn about water, for the first time, without touching it... Let's hear it for kinesthetic experiences!

Cheers.

Jim

J. Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ashley -

Hmmm... You say, "I would love the opportunity to observe educational systems in many different countries and within many different cultures."

Here is a list of possibilities: http://www.shambles.net/pages/staff/exchanges/

Be sure to send me an e-mail when you hit the road! Remember, the best teachers are learners!

Cheers.

Jim

Discussion Grading PBL

Last comment 1 hour 24 min ago in PBL Planning

blog Creating a Welcoming and Intellectually Challenging Classroom

Last comment 1 day 5 hours ago in Back to School

Discussion Project Management Methodology for the Primary School

Last comment 4 days 4 hours ago in Project-Based Learning

Discussion PBL & Kids with Special Needs/Autism Spectrum Disorders

Last comment 6 days 15 hours ago in Project-Based Learning

Discussion How do you improve education in Nairobi slums?

Last comment 1 week 1 day ago in Project-Based Learning

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.