Postcard from China: Constructivist Theory in Chinese Classrooms? Good Luck

Amber Winkler, Fordham's VP for Research, recently traveled China as a Senior Fellow with the Global Education Policy Fellowship Program (GEPFP). She'll be passing along her observations on education in the People's Republic with periodic ?Postcards from China.?

I've now had the opportunity to sit and peek in several schools and classrooms in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an. I knew upfront that the Chinese were only going to show us what they wanted us to see--and that's proven true. In all three cities, we visited some of the best public and private schools they had to offer. Naturally, our study group is left wondering what education looks like for rural children outside the city borders and for "migrant" youngsters within city limits.? We'll keep wondering.

Still, I have a feeling that what I witnessed in these top-tier classrooms, specifically in terms of student and teacher behaviors, is rather typical of China as a whole.? These private and public institutions--a mixture of elementary, middle, and high school grades--shared some common characteristics, most of which Western educators have heard before about Chinese education. I'll expound on two.

First, Chinese teaching is dominated by direct instruction. Mostly kids sit in rows and the teacher talks--but she does so enthusiastically and often times with humor. So at no time was I bored. (In fact, we're told that teachers see part of their job as a "show" and relish the stage.) Teachers ask LOTS of questions to the class as a whole and the students recite responses back in unison. At least in the classrooms I visited, students did not ask questions nor did teachers invite them.

Classroom Instruction

For instance, I spent 30 minutes in a class on Chinese history, during which the teacher showed the students pictures of local historical sites (many I'd seen site seeing!) and asked what appeared to be "recall" questions. (My colleagues in different classrooms, however, did see some group work.)

Second, children are exceedingly well behaved. China's reverence for education and respect for authority and elders helps on this front. Out of a class of 45 that I observed (average class size is 50), I saw one child with his head down. The rest were responding to teacher queries. (And yes, model behavior helps when it comes to classes of 50-plus students.) We had occasion to observe a 6th-12th grade "gym class" in a private boarding school. School administrators organized-- via loud intercoms on stage and lurking in trees--a workout for half of the student body, which appeared to be several hundred youngsters by my quick count. The 10-minute class amounted to a few stretches, marching in place and hip bends, more a breath of fresh air in between classes than a sweat fest. But I was both awestruck by the speed at which these students organized themselves in rows and followed instructions and flummoxed at the Nazi-Germany feel of the whole presentation.

Gym Class

Just as China is vexed with how and if it will serve all of its students, the "Middle Kingdom" is also struggling with how to implement instructional reform. Administrators, affiliates from the Ministry of Education, and teachers told us repeatedly that incorporating constructivist learning into classes is high priority (indeed the Chinese government has this as one of its educational reforms). Any good teacher will tell you that quality instruction is a blend of both teacher- and student-directed learning. The Chinese know how to do the former--and they do it well. They don't know how to do the latter (though they've contracted with several U.S. educators and ed professors to help them).

But is it possible for a constructivist push to gain traction here? Such a reform entails encouraging students to be critical consumers of information, question processes and protocols, interact with different people and cultures to make new meaning and discover new truths, and practice individuality. None of which the Chinese Communist Party is a fan of. Do they recognize the irony of what they've told their schools to do?

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