According to John Steinbeck, “People don’t take trips… trips take people.” I’m inclined to agree.
This past Spring break, some of my family and I traveled to Beijing and Xi’an, China with a group of educators. We climbed a section of the Great Wall, explored the Forbidden City, stood behind barricades at Tianiman Square, visited thousands of terra cotta warriors, bicycled the Xi’an wall, and more. Nevertheless, a major highlight of the trip was being granted the privilege to tour the Middle School Attached to Beijing Youth Politics College (its official name) and meet with its administrators and some of its teachers.
These are some of the observations I made while interacting with these gracious educators.
Educators everywhere care about kids.
It was clear from the interactions between adults and students, even though there was a language barrier, they had mutual affection and respect for each other. The school leaders had high expectations for student learning and were working hard to help students meet their potential with rigorous curriculum, supported by excellent teaching. In turn, students clearly had caring connections with their teachers.
Teachers must be skilled.
In China it is obvious that teachers are highly respected for their talent and skills. The teachers we observed were highly professional, confident, and used a variety of techniques to share what they wanted students to understand. They provided models, demonstrated processes, and then provided hands on practice activities; walking around to support and extend learning. Teachers used formative call and response questions to evaluate student learning in real time, identifying class misconceptions and re-teaching as needed. China’s professional development and collaboration between master teachers and novice teachers provides a model for increasing teacher skill and lesson development.
Rigorous learning involves discipline, but should include creation and fun.
Students we saw were well aware of their learning goals and knew their future depended on their effort and performance, but they also found moments to be playful and laugh while learning. At the school there are frequent ten minute breaks between classes which allowed students to relax and/or prepare for their next lesson. School goes from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM with 45 minute classes. Classes include arts, sciences, English, Mandarin, and mathematics (8 classes per day.) There are 20-30 students per class in the middle grades with high school students in classes of up to 45 students. A school day is also broken up with opportunities for exercise, something the Chinese consider highly valuable at every age.
The school had a clear arts focus and students were working on many different projects. Student art was on display all over the school.
The Chinese system is rooted in merit and performance, perhaps limiting opportunities if a student’s strengths aren’t readily identified, and/or if the family is too poor to provide schooling beyond the 9th grade. The American system is rooted in opportunity and equity, perhaps at the expense of identifying and supporting students in their areas of exceptional skill, and possibly devolving into a one size fits all approach.
In China, public school is only free from first to 9th grade. Parents must pay for school if they wish to have their child in school before first grade or continue in school after the 9thgrade.
At the school we visited, students had to apply and have proven artistic abilities and skills to be accepted. Many primary and middle level schools are affiliated with specific universities, but only the top 10% from the middle school we visited would qualify to go to its affiliate university. As a result, competition and high stakes lead some students to feel anxious and stressed, necessitating psychological counseling support for the students.
Although competition in education can be toxic, it can also be motivating.
The exceptionally talented students we observed and spoke with were being challenged and trained at a high level. It was obvious that their pursuit of study with mentors and teachers skilled in providing artistic and other instruction in their particular areas of strength was producing solid results. Being surrounded by other high ability peers was empowering, as well as intimidating for these students. Many of the students we spoke with were international students who had come to study in China from neighboring countries. They boarded at the school or in the nearby community, were anxious to make their families proud, and anticipated a wide variety of future options in their native country when they completed their studies.
Kids have similar behaviors no matter their culture or experience.
It was intriguing watching student behaviors in the various classrooms we visited. You could pick out the kid who was eager to answer every question, the one at the side of the room trying hard not to be noticed and lip syncing answers a half second after everyone else responded, the one who was daydreaming, and the one who took copious notes. Classrooms are full of behavior diversity even when you don’t understand everything they are saying.
Schools should be orderly and beautiful.
The Middle School Attached to Bejing Youth Politics College (yeah, it’s a mouthful) was an attractive place inside and out. Its clean hallways and rooms were obviously older, but they were well maintained and decorated with both professional art and stude nt work. The outside courtyard had lovely curved benches and large elegant sculptures. The teacher meeting room looked like the boardroom for a large corporation. There was an air of professionalism and peacefulness that emphasized reverence for education.
School leadership is extremely important.
The school leaders who met us and escorted us around the school were clearly proud of their program and their students. They knew what to expect in each classroom and had positive interactions with their staff members, whom they referred to with a great deal of respect. They knew students’ names and were familiar with what was being taught. The leaders met us with the same respect they showed to their own faculty. They gave us gifts bearing their school logo and thanked us for coming as if we were the ones doing them a great favor.
Investing in children requires a great deal of sacrifice and expense from a community and its government.
The school we visited had up to date technology and modern resources and supplies in its classrooms. Along with ubiquitous chalk and chalkboards, sticky notes and pencils, there were smart boards used for instruction, a myriad of quality art supplies, and two tremendous libraries full of resources. Our tour guides and others we met were clearly proud of the abilities of the younger generation, many of whom could speak English. They saw their youth as their hope for a successful and prosperous future.
Discover and respect others’ different ways of doing things, and maybe you will learn something.
Although the experience we had in China was definitely government approved and was a small segment of a very complex and varied system, I found much to admire.
The Great Wall was pretty great, and time spent visiting a school in China made me anxious to see and learn more in other countries too. Perhaps this summer in Copenhagen, I’ll find a school eager to show the important things they are doing for kids.