by Jeff Wang
November 30, 2010, NEW YORK — Last month, we introduced to you the 2010 Hanban – Asia Society Confucius Classrooms Network Summit in China. We are thrilled to report that the Summit and visits throughout China to our partner schools were all successful and have already spurred changes in thinking and in action. Here’s some of what we learned.
First, a little background. Asia Society designed this Summit to be a unique, two-track exchange opportunity for Chinese teachers and school leaders in both China and the U.S. Our goal was to offer technical and logistical support for these educators as they innovate and implement projects for their students based on shared goals of building stronger and more meaningful school-to-school partnerships. The Summit was organized in conjunction with East China Normal University.
The Summit included seminars and discussions, school visits, and a U.S.–China Principals’ Roundtable, which together provided participants with a deeper understanding of the differences and similarities between U.S. and Chinese education systems, education reforms, youth culture, and youth interests.
The attendees are already reporting back with valuable, productive observations and results, such as:
1. "Fair-trade" Exchanges
One pair of schools has instituted a biweekly videoconference, alternating in the use of English and Chinese. The U.S. educators observed that Chinese students spend a huge amount of time and effort acquiring English language skills. Thanks to state mandates, most Chinese start studying English three to nine years earlier than a common American high-schooler. Many criticize China's English language education for producing learners who score high on English tests, yet are incapable of communicating. But in the videoconference with American peers, English tends to dominate their conversations.
We have from the start emphasized the importance of a two-way partnership that benefits both parties, because we believe, just like trade, this is the only way to keep an educational exchange robust and long-lasting. Instituting separate time slots for either the use of English or Chinese is a great way to establish discipline and encourage the use of target language for students on both sides. Often, coordinators of videoconferences will split the time during each session into English-only or Chinese-only. Some of our Confucius Classrooms are taking this a step further, by keeping entire sessions in only one language, while making these videoconferences more frequent and more regular.
2. Differences vs. Affinities
For too long, exchange programs have focused disproportionately on discovering and investigating differences between “us” and “them.” We think curiosity should be channeled to discover both “others and differences” as well as “self and similarities.” At the education policy level, school leaders in our delegation discovered that colleagues in China face very similar challenges to their own, such as parental involvement, and the influence of exams versus skills- and competence-driven education.
Taking note of similarities and differences may also lead to new areas of collaboration that are engaging and relevant. One school administrator in our delegation noticed a shared interest in popular literature, such as in the Twilight series, among students in China and the U.S. This realization prompted him to start a joint book club where students can share the books they read, as well as their views on the books. Affinities of youth culture and interest have great potential as partnership builders. We have seen many examples of converging youth interest in music, art, sports, and dreams. In addition to learning other diverse languages, histories, and ways of life, there is room to explore collaborative projects that are based on shared interests and aspirations.
3. Regularity and Integration
Whether exchange activities happen on a regular basis, and to what extent they are part of existing school programs are important indicators of the robustness and longevity of a school-to-school partnership.
At the school administrators’ level, some Confucius Classrooms have begun weekly videoconferences between coordinators, to ensure smooth and active communications of ideas and concerns about the partnership-building.
At the faculty level, some Confucius Classrooms have plans to share instructional materials and methods in subjects ranging from science to art, which is a great way to ensure that the exchange relationship provides benefits to language teachers as well as teachers in other disciplines. In turn, this creates synergy and greater buy-in from the school community to support the partnership in the long run.
Many examples of joint activities for students reflect thoughtful planning and use of money and time. Some have scheduled student trips so that visitors can be included in regular school projects such as Model UN; some plan to hold joint summer camps where American and Chinese students would each spend half of the time living and studying in their peers’ community; and others have offered scholarships or tuition waivers so that long-term exchange of students will become not only possible but also – and importantly – integral to the school community.
We think these are all excellent ways to ensure that partnership and exchange activities are tailored to each school and partnership, will broaden students’ global competence and prospects, and will become an essential part of school life and community.
All this is just a start. We look forward to further follow-ups from participants as they apply learnings from this China Summit to their daily work. These discoveries and implementations require curiosity, vision, and practical know-how.
Asia Society is proud to continue to provide such a platform for U.S. and Chinese school leaders and educators, and we look forward to exploring and creating opportunities for our students.