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TC and China: The Second Century


village family

A village family in Liu Xiao, Yunnan, where TC's Center for Chinese Education helps poor adults and children attend school.

Teacher, Know Thyself

A training program born of research at TC is helping Chinese educators understand how culture mediates classroom experiences

"The fish is the last to know it is in water."

To Xiaodong Lin, Associate Professor of Technology and Education at Teachers College, that old Chinese proverb captures the new challenge China faces as it attempts to overhaul its education system.

The world's most populous nation is trying to produce a new generation of creative, adaptive learners who can carry on bold discussions and work well with others. Yet despite clear pronouncements from Beijing, the reforms haven't taken hold in the classroom, particularly in the outlying provinces. Students remain afraid to speak up and interact. They don't work well in groups, either because they're too passive, or because they fight over whose contributions will receive the most credit.

To Lin's eye, much of the problem lies in the way teachers are being prepared. For example, at East China Normal, one of China's most highly regarded education schools, large groups of several hundred teachers sit in an auditorium and learn about the new goals through "progress reports" that go on for hours. They have no activity-based exchanges and there is little give and take. The process is top-down; the learners are passive.

"In the U.S. as well as in China, teacher professional development tends to focus on teachers' content knowledge and instructional technique," says Lin, who in 2004 established TC's Asian-American Center for Creative Educational Sciences (ACCESS), dedicated to promoting cultural understanding between Asian and American educators and enhancing their professional development through technology.  "But educators also need to be aware of the cultural values and assumptions that underlie their own classroom practices - and of how those differ from the values and assumptions of their students.  Those gaps often explain why students don't learn what teachers teach."

Lin knows a thing or two about how cultures shape education. Born in Shanghai to a prominent family that had been among the city's wealthiest prior to the Communist takeover, she directly experienced the privations from the Cultural Revolution. Her parents - a doctor and an engineer - lost their jobs and the family was exiled to rural Henan province. Between the ages of nine and 16, Lin had no schooling. Then, as she has recounted it, her family returned to the city and she was subjected to the opposite extreme: "I was stuffed full of information, like a Beijing duck."

In the U.S., where she moved in 1987, Lin was struck not only by the contrast between the two countries' education methods, but also by the assumptions Americans made about foreigners. For example, graduate students didn't want to study with her because "Chinese professors are critical and boring."  She became an advocate of "cultural metacognition" - the notion that successful teaching stems in part from a teacher's ability to adapt the classroom environment to the varying backgrounds and needs of students.  Working with colleagues from other universities, Lin developed an approach called critical event-based instruction (CEBI), through which teachers analyze common classroom occurrences to guide them in making such adaptations. Students follow a "learning cycle" in which they generate ideas around a particular challenge; refine their ideas by comparing them to those of both other students and established experts in the field; test their ideas by applying them to a sample problem; "go public" with their approach, in the context of a much larger group; and, finally, reflect back on past experiences and anticipate new challenges.

More recently, David McGhee - a recent TC alumnus who runs his own training and development company in China - used a grant from the College to shape these ideas into a teacher training program that employs CEBI. Drawing on the hundreds of hours of live footage of American professors, teachers and students at work-'"as well as of Chinese students-'"McGhee was able to equip his product with a range of one- to three-minute film clips of actual classroom critical events, accompanied by expert commentary. Working in groups themselves, teachers can view these clips and then follow a learning cycle to analyze problems and strategies for improvement. The process is facilitated by a new program called Onenote, developed by Microsoft, which allows a room full of people working on computers to view each others' work in real time.

McGhee has since adapted his program for classroom use. During summer 2005, at the invitation of the local Ministry of Education, he journeyed to three remote areas of China's Shandong Province - Weifang, ShoGuang and Zhou Qang - to train more than a thousand junior high school math and science teachers. Working in an area with infrequent plumbing, McGhee-'"who is allergic to MSG, a staple in Chinese cooking - lost 20 pounds in the intense summer heat. His team spent the first few days unpacking boxes of computers and setting up networks. But their efforts earned rare plaudits from the participants, as well as from a visiting scholar from East China Normal, who predicted that the program would change the way China educates its teachers. McGhee was invited to conduct another round of training sessions during summer 2006.

"We're touching a lot of people, in a way that's totally different from how they normally learn," he says. "Seeing them feel free to speak openly and watching their reactions when they realized that everyone in the whole room was communicating at the same time-'"that was really phenomenal."

In the Eye of the Beholder

Western experts who advise developing nations tend to assume that the knowledge flows in only one direction. But in the five years that Judith Burton, Professor of Art Education at Teachers College, has been working with China's Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and the China National Gallery, she's gained as much wisdom as she's imparted.

"I think I originally assumed, along with many other folk from the West, that Chinese artists and art educators were caught in some kind of time warp, in which traditions of the past were probably exercising some kind of inhibiting influence on the ability to chart a future of new possibilities," writes Burton in a paper that will soon appear in the journal Art Education in Asia. "I could not imagine how innovation could come from within traditional ways of thinking and doing things that were so deeply enmeshed in the rules and traditions of an ancient past." Yet she has since come to believe that "perhaps no artistic tradition has insisted with greater force on the need for inspired spontaneity than that of the Chinese - and that is no less true of the ancients than it is today."

Burton first traveled to China in 2001 at the invitation of Pan Gokai, CAFA's President, to help the Academy set up its first graduate art education program. She discovered that teachers of art education had little or no pedagogical background. There was no instruction around human development, instructional practices, curriculum or the cultural contexts of students. Instead, the training of teachers consisted mainly of passing on the artistic traditions and techniques of past professors.

This approach was also reflected in China's K--12 classrooms where children primarily learned to copy traditional art from state-produced workbooks. It was, Burton writes, a huge contrast to the U.S. where "for the most part, art teachers rely on the power of youngsters' own imaginations, innate creativity and local cultural knowledge to stimulate their ideas"; where dialogue is a staple of classroom instruction; and where art education programs often work closely with museums and other cultural institutions.

Over the past five years, Burton certainly has nudged CAFA and the National Gallery in some distinctly Western directions. Partly as a result of her efforts, Chinese museums and cultural sites now see themselves less as "guardians of objects of an imperial past" and are increasingly opening their doors to visitors other than scholars and researchers; many also are now offering classes. Pedagogy is broadening beyond simply working from models. And, in the lower grades in particular, teaching strategies are beginning to incorporate the importance of play for developing artists, as opposed to concentrating solely on traditional techniques and fixed outcomes.

But Burton makes it very clear that China has nudged back. She came to understand that embedded in Chinese tradition is "a respect for the uniqueness of every mark and line made by the body, hand and mind of a maker." Old rulebooks she studied insisted that "memorization was to be accompanied by chants designed to put the maker into the right mood for personal inspiration." The primary concern of these books "was not the perpetuation of conventional images, nor a plausible narrative," she writes, but rather was "more like a -'poetic evocation' of an experience."

Burton notes that these ideas, which come from a fusion of philosophical traditions that include Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, anticipate various Western artistic "revolutions" by hundreds and even thousands of years. From early on, Chinese artists "depicted more than can be seen with the naked eye," she writes. "The observer fills in the space through reflective imagination. Later, Western abstractionists were to make exactly these same arguments."

Perhaps a defining moment for Burton came in November 2004, when TC's Macy Gallery, which she curates, held a showing by several young Chinese artists from CAFA titled "Tradition and Innovation."

Reflecting back on that event in her paper, Burton says: "I think that I am now beginning to understand that there may just be another developmental trajectory for children's learning-'"one of greater artistic sophistication than Western realism imposes upon youngsters' artistic and aesthetic growth.  For this personal insight, I am deeply grateful to the students I worked with in China for making me see that much of what I already knew might also be understood otherwise."

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