At the beginning of every class, Gao Xin Yi Zhong students stand to greet their teachers. “Lăoshī, hăo,” they chant in unison, as they bow their heads forward. This small routine is just one of many examples I have seen of the deep-seated respect for teachers in China. Teaching is a high-status job here, as only the top university students can become teachers. In the classroom, there is a raised platform at the front where teachers stand. Students quiet down quickly when their teachers enter the room and always stand up to address them. Meanwhile, in my classroom at BHS, students sometimes continue to socialize as I announce the start of class and blurt out answers before I can call on anyone. When I taught a short story to a class of Chinese students, the sixty students in the room were so quiet I found it unnerving.
In the Chinese classroom, the teacher is the “master”; it is his or her job to show the students how the work is done, but it is up to the students to reach that standard. For that reason, students have to take more responsibility for knowing the material. During a lesson, the teacher often calls on a student to stand up and answer a question, putting her on the spot. If she cannot answer the question, sometimes she must continue standing. This all sends the message that the student should know the answer. In China, when a student fails, it is her own fault, whereas American students are more likely to make excuses.
As a teacher, I admire some things about the Chinese way. Students must learn that their own hard work is the key to learning, and they must become adept at studying on their own. Teachers also seem to get a lot more appreciation for the hard work that they do, which helps with morale. In the U.S., there is a national narrative that our public schools are full of lazy teachers who draw a public salary while the unions protect them from being fired, and these negative assumptions about teachers sometimes make an already difficult job even harder. We could certainly learn from the Chinese about how to treat teachers.
On the other hand, the Chinese way of doing things is not “student-centered”; it sometimes ignores students’ needs. For example, in our pottery class, the teacher demonstrated the correct methods for us before we began working but did not interfere with our work save for the occasional criticism: our coils were too large, or we should not make the sides straight up and down. At the end of the period, he told me that my pot was lopsided. “I know!” I burst out. “If I knew how to make it straight, I would have!” Frustrated, I felt like I had been offered assessment without much guidance.
In the U.S., teachers act more as coaches, giving students in-process feedback, and guiding their work on an individual basis. This is not only less frustrating for students, but also allows for more flexibility; I can guide different students down different paths depending on their strengths and needs. I can also ask students to complete more complex tasks because I can provide them with more support and give them feedback that goes beyond wrong or right. In contrast, the methods of instruction in China sometimes reduce learning to recitation; students memorize formulas, facts, and vocabulary but do not learn to ask questions and explore ambiguities. Respect for authority creates an orderly classroom, but it can stifle creative thinking.
I think many Chinese teachers feel constrained by the system, which is shaped largely by necessity. China simply has many more students to educate than the U.S. To give you a sense of scale, one of the residential complexes where my students live, which covers one large city block, itself has half the population of the entire town of Brookline. The Gao Xin district is packed with similar complexes, so it is no wonder that Gao Xin Yi Zhong has sixty students per class, instead of twenty to twenty-five, as we do in Brookline. With classes this size, there is no way teachers could differentiate instruction to the extent that we do in the U.S., or manage a more lively classroom culture. Even with the relatively small class sizes we have in Brookline, this is a herculean task.
Also, as in any country, China’s education system is shaped by larger socio-economic forces. Its large population with growing expectations for standards of living means that there is intense competition for white-collar jobs. The best way to secure a good job is to earn top scores in high-stakes examinations, so these tests influence every level of education. One English teacher here at Gao Xin lamented to me that instruction in China is “exam oriented,” so “the teachers have to push the students to memorize words, grammar… and so on” instead of doing more interesting things.
When I heard this, I realized that while Chinese and American teachers have different advantages and disadvantages based on the systems we work within, our job has the same question at its core: how can we do right by our students? Amidst competing pressures, how do we best prepare our students for a happy and successful life? At Brookline High School, I have more opportunities for designing my own curriculum and tailoring my instruction to individual students, while Gao Xin Yi Zhong teachers enjoy more national respect and more authority in the classroom. They struggle with the pressures of high-stakes exams, while I struggle with the demand to meet every student’s unique needs. But our common purpose is to give our students the best education we can, and our common struggle is to figure out what that really means. In this struggle, there is a lot we can learn from each other.