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Chinese students offer views on American education

by Trevor Keiser

February 20, 2013

Luqianlan Cao takes notes as she observes a class of first-graders at Daniel Axford Elementary. Photos by Trevor Keiser
What are the differences between Chinese and American teaching styles?

Twenty-six students from the Michigan State University Confucius Institute got to find out last week.

Oxford Community Schools was one of several districts the students observed as part of their field requirements for preparing to teach in American classrooms.

The students spent time in classrooms throughout the district observing and gaining insight on western teachings, methodologies and strategies, according to Oxford's Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Dr. James Schwarz

"All of those teachers have a bachelor degree already. They come here and they're working on their masters," Schwarz said. "They are essentially a part of a masters program and they're looking to becoming Mandarin Chinese Teachers in our school districts."

The students spent time at Daniel Axford and Oxford elementaries as well as Oxford's middle and high schools.

Luqianlan Cao, who observed Katie Rinke's first grade classroom at Daniel Axford on Thursday, said the Western Style teaching is very different from traditional Chinese.

"Teachers (here) are very caring, not only for the kid's study, but for their behavior and their values," Cao said. "It's very different from Chinese, because (many) Chinese teachers, but not all of them, always focus on the study and the kid's grades (and) the marks they get on their exams."

Because Chinese teachers are so focused on the exams and the grades, Cao said creativity, which is encouraged in American schools, is not so in China.

"The system of the (Chinese) school forces (students) to let their creativity go. They have (creativity,) but (the) teachers just say 'there is only one answer to this question.' So what you have to do is remember that answer."

Li Lu, who observed Michelle Kussner's first-grade class at Daniel Axford, agreed.

"The knowledge we get from teachers (in China), the content is so much more intense especially the math," Lu said. "The teachers are stricter to the students. I think western style they play a lot and keep their creativity but we (Chinese students) just listen and obey the teachers. That's more important in China."

Cao said group work was another thing they don't do much of in China.

"At their age (elementary) we seldom have group activities to cooperate," she said. "I think teamwork is very good here and what we lack in China."

Lu also added that students don't sit on a carpet around the teacher.

"We sit in our seat for a whole day," she said. "Teachers are (standing) straight."

While Cao said she learned a lot during her time of observation. She said her favorite part was gym class where she played a game with the kids that they play in gym back in China.

Lu said the biggest difference she noticed was time in the classroom.

"We have 40 minutes of class and get 10 minutes for a short time of recess. (Another) 40 minutes class and another 10 minutes (of) recess," she said. "(In China we have) four classes in the morning and three classes in the afternoon."

Superintendent Dr. William Skilling said the observation component was new to the MSU Confucius Institute program, which he said was good for students to be able to debrief on what they saw and heard in the classroom.

"Sometimes they (students) don't show up until they start teaching. There is a big learning curve when it comes to the culture and even the language (and) there are a lot of nuances when it comes to our language or slang or things like that," he said. "These teachers can't discern that. You could have students in the class saying inappropriate things and they wouldn't even know it."

Schwarz said the observation by the MSU students is similar to the partnership they are starting with Oakland University's students studying to teach Mandarin in the U.S.

"Oakland will be providing their degree program (and) their mentorship that are programmatic to their learning," he said. "We will provide essentially the classrooms for them to observe in and maybe practice some things in and get feedback."

Upon completion, Schwarz said they could be placed either in Oxford's district or in other districts across the state or nation.

"It's a nice prospect for us to be able to become kind of that training hub for preparing those teachers."

Skilling said the students will spend four weeks in Oxford's classrooms observing a Chinese teacher teach, using western practices.

"Even though they've been taught this in the classroom and watched video," he said. "It's not the same thing as being in the classroom, seeing and feeling the dynamics of what goes on."

Skilling said students will also have a chance to write their own lesson plans and teach that lesson with a mentor or two observing. Afterwards they will have a chance to debrief what went well, what didn't go well and what they would do differently.

"This is going to be huge in their advanced preparation," he said. That's why he is excited about the partnership.

"Ninety percent of language learners of Chinese are in the Tri-County area," Skilling added. "Oakland County has the most students learning Mandarin Chinese, so it really makes sense (for us) to work with a local university."