Eileen traveled to China In the fall of 2004 with a delegation of 20 multicultural educators studying the education system of the Peoples’ Republic of China, particularly how it addresses issues of diversity among the fifty-six minorities and how it prepares students for entry into the international workforce. The delegation was sponsored by the People to People International, a nonpolitical, private-sector organization dedicated to promoting international understanding.
Eileen was part of team from that delegation that jointly authored an article entitled, Drawing Parallels in Search of Educational Equity: A Multicultural Education Delegation to China Looks Outside to See Within, published in“Multicultural Perspectives,” the official journal of the National Association for Multicultural Education in Issue 1 of 2008.
Here are Eileen’s reflections on school culture in the People’s Republic of China after her trip:
School Culture and Discipline: Tradition and Reform
Chinese culture is influenced strongly by Confucianism which has guided it for millennia (Deutsch). Flowing from this is a view that the good of the group is paramount to the needs of the individual. This collectivist view has a strong influence on school climate in China, from the classroom to the playground.
Over the last decade, education in China has also been guided by a series of education reforms. One of the motivating forces is concern that education in China has placed too much emphasis on preparing students for high-stakes tests that are based on facts not deemed relevant to the needs of today’s China. There is also concern that schools have not been inspiring individual creativity which is important as China moves to a global economy (Zhao).
Evidence of both the cultural value of collectivism, putting the needs of the group above individual needs, and the reform efforts, geared to developing students who are ready for the global economy, could be seen in the classrooms observed. While classes are very large in China — from 40 to as large as 90 in rural schools, according to Wendy Tien, a teacher at Chongquing- Huixing Primary School – a community spirit was evident. In the United States, large classes are cited as one factor influencing a breakdown in discipline (Public Agenda). Yet, individual discipline problems were not seen in any of the Chinese classes observed. In fact, students seemed engaged and attentive. In an art class, students were asked to quickly pick up large paper in the center of the room and then return to their seats set up in a circle. The elementary age students ran and grabbed sheets of paper and then ran back to their seats. We observed no shoving between students nor grabbing of paper from a peer, and the students quieted down within seconds of sitting in their seats, immediately working on the assigned task.
The classrooms observed also reflected the reform goal of making the learning environment lively and engaging for the students. Teachers led spirited activities which actively involved students in their learning. Teachers encouraged students to yell out answers in response to their questions – at a noise level that would not be considered appropriate in a U.S. school. Yet again, the importance of behaving for the good of the group was observed, as the students quickly became attentive and listened for the next question.
Students rose together in small groups to respond to the teacher’s questions in early elementary classes. However, reflecting current efforts to permit individual achievement to be recognized, the teachers also chose individual students to give responses to the questions. The students were praised by the teacher and classmates for correct answers with good-natured teasing when the answer was wrong.
In the high school, students were well behaved during discussions with visitors. They wore school uniforms, similar to jogging suits, as did their elementary counterparts. When asked questions such as what profession they aspired to, the first students to respond provided answers that would benefit the nation, such as a soldier. However, as the students became more comfortable to the visitors and engaged in private conversations, they described dreams more like typical teenagers in the United States, such as wanting to be a pop singer or a psychologist because of a movie character.
The values espoused by collectivism were at work on the playground. At Beijing Normal University Primary School, we observed a lively recess, with fewer than five adults clearly visible as more than 300 students played outside. Students played games such as soccer or ping pong, or used the gymnastic equipment. Nearly every child was engaged in some activity. We observed no incidents of negative interactions between students as they played with each other, sharing the equipment without conflict.
China considers education of the body a critical part of the child’s education, thus physical education is an important part of the students’ daily lives. We noted no overweight children in any of the schools we visited. At Chongquing-Huixing Primary School, we observed students quickly respond to the music indicating that “Morning Exercises” were about to begin. In formation, hundreds of students joyfully filed down to the large blacktop area and took their places. Physical exercises including dancing to the music were led by enthusiastic teachers. The teachers brought out equipment ranging from traditional balls and climbing equipment, to stilts and large spinning tops for the students to use in one group, and then rotate to another. The students clearly appeared to be enjoying themselves. Again, we observed no discipline problems on the playground. When the exercise period was over, the students picked up the equipment and returned to class. We saw a smooth transition as the students rapidly turned their focus to academic subjects.
Community support for the school was evident, as dozens of parents and neighbors came to watch the students when the Morning Exercise music began. Chongquing-Huixing prides itself on the involvement of its parents, reporting that nearly 90% come to the school for parent programs. While this involvement is a significant step forward for the Chinese system, it is considered an early stage of parent involvement in the United States. Although the parent meetings provided valuable information to the parents, the school meetings were described as solely one-way communications. There is no attempt to solicit information from the parents themselves to form a partnership, which is considered a more effective form of parent involvement in the United States (Hidalgo et. al.).
Dean Zhao of the Yunnan Institute of the Nationalities noted that the country is working to develop an educational system that is both traditional, passing down culture from generation to generation, and modern, incorporating new educational reforms. These are both evident in the school climate of today’s Chinese schools.
Deutsch, F. M. (2004). How parents influence the life plans of graduating Chinese university students. Journal of Family Studies, 35, 393-421.
Hidalgo, N.M., Sau-Fong, S., & Epstein, J.L. (2004). Research on families, schools and communities — a multicultural perspective; Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (2nd edition), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 631-655
Public Agenda (2004) Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies in Today’s Public Schools Foster the Common Good? Washington, D.C.
Wang, J. (2005) Curriculum Reform of Elementary Education in China. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Australia
Zhao, Yong (2005) Increasing Math and Science Achievement: The Best and Worst of the East and West. Phi Delta Kappan 87(3), 219-222.