Wednesday, November 12

More on Education

The past two weeks in China have flown by. We've been busy with Chinese lessons (which, to be honest, haven't progressed beyond the most basic words), TBB seminars, and teaching English. As a group, we've been reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who wrote on the philosophy of education in the 1960s. The book essentially breaks the world down into the oppressed, and the oppressors, and uses the idea of being "more fully human" to criticize the "banking-method" of education (rote memorization, didactic teaching, and indoctrination) and espouse liberating education (a process of dialogue in which teachers are not authoritatively forcing knowledge upon students). It has provoked some interesting conversations and fits well with what we've been observing about the Chinese educational system.

We've had a number of lectures from local professors about China's education policies, about minoritys' education in rural areas, about the examination system. Yesterday we had a panel of three generations -- a 90-year-old man, a woman who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and a high school student in the midst of the university entrance examination process himself. It was interesting to hear about their experiences anecdotally. It doesn't seem as though the educational system and overall attitudes towards it have changed much, with the exception of the period between 1966 and 1976 when Mao essentially halted education. And why should the attitudes have changed -- they date back thousands of years to Confucius and general reverence for the value of education. Yet China faces criticism from a number of education experts internationally, with their system based on a passive role for students, rote memorization, and grueling competition between students.

I've certainly seen some instances of this in the classrooms I've observed. In one, outside of Kunming, students were unable to answer some of the most simple questions orally -- "how old are you?" and yet their textbooks had fairly advanced essays and the written exercises were correctly answered. In this case, students were well trained to comprehend written English (and perform well on exams), but could not carry on a basic conversation.

In my school, the students are so practiced at answering certain questions that they cannot understand similar ones. When I asked "what school do you go to?" looking for a simple answer with the name of their school, they all answered, "I go to school by bike." "I go to school by bus."

Each day I began class by asking, "how are you?" I quickly learned that the students understand this phrase, and without fail, each time, they chorus in unison, "I am fine, thank you, and you?" After a couple of classes, I decided to teach the students other responses to the question -- add some variety -- and so we generated a list of other adjectives.

Because we saw each section only three times, for forty-five minutes each, we didn't cover much by way of complicated concepts. The schools had asked us to share American culture, so we talked about our families, teenage life, school, music, holidays. I don't have any delusions that I taught the students much , but I hope that they got to practice their spoken English, and perhaps found incentive to learn English -- a difficult subject that probably becomes frustrating in a class of memorization and testing. It was hard to reach all of the students in the class -- of sixty-five, maybe eight or ten volunteered to speak each class.

All in all, though, it was a fun experience. The students loved to see pictures of my family -- they all thought Stephen, who just turned sixteen, was in his twenties. They all gasped when they saw postcards of Boston, and a couple of boys recognized it for the Celtics.

Today the school had a huge sports celebration. There were no classes, and the entire school (four or five thousand) gathered at a stadium. The opening ceremony consisted of each class (three grades - twenty four classes in each grade) marching into the stadium and around the track, dressed in matching uniforms, for a good hour and a half. The ceremony was full of balloons, flags, music, banners with slogans like "nothing is impossible," "never say never," and "besides win, what else can we do?" Despite being mind-numbing after a few minutes, the ceremony was so interesting because I can't imagine American middle schoolers having the patience or discipline to march in unison like that, and I can't imagine the schools devoting the time and money to orchestrating it. In a way, it was a microcosm for the very system of education here in China -- a collective spirit, a seriousness, impressive grandeur. The sports will continue for the rest of the week so we're done teaching at that school.

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