China Calling: Why Education Leaders Should Go

A gateway to the new China. Image: DCF_pics/flickr.

When American school officials go to China, it can result not only in a transformative personal and professional experience, but also in greater vision and support for global learning and student achievement. Whether China is viewed as a competitor or partner, today’s schools recognize that they need to prepare U.S. students for this emerging power. As a result, every year hundreds of American teachers and students cross the Pacific to engage China themselves. But all too often school administrators, board members, superintendents, and state educational officials remain behind, reading, hearing, and learning about China’s 5,000 years of history and rapid modernization, but not coming into direct contact with it themselves. Why should they put their many obligations at school and office on hold to embark for China?

To journey to China “goes beyond invigorating language, history, or cultural study: it is a way to internationalize their curriculum. It is, essentially, the way of beginning the globalization of our schools,” contends Daniel W. Gregg, a long-time director of the Connecticut Shandong School Partnerships of the Connecticut State Department of Education. Gregg reflects, “In sixth graders you see a gigantic leap in students’ knowledge base. The exchange is the only thing I have personally experienced where you can take adults to China and you see that same leap.”

According to Dr. Juefei Wang, Program Director of the Freeman Foundation, and Founder and Former Director of the Asian Studies Outreach Program (ASOP) at the University of Vermont, school administrators who participate in an exchange with China are more likely to encourage teachers in their school or district to go to China, and are also more apt to become strong advocates for instituting Asian Studies curriculum in their schools. Over his fourteen years of organizing and facilitating exchanges for school administrators and officials, Wang has come to believe that two elements are essential to deepened understanding. One is “personal experience:” taking in the sights, sounds, and even smells of China oneself. The second is “physical appearance:” the act of showing up in a different school or locale and making an impact upon the people in that community.

This kind of materialization is as remarkable as the intensely eye-opening revelation of encountering a new place and a culture. For this reason, school officials should consider two-way exchanges, inviting officials, principals, and teachers to come from China and spend time in schools with American educators and students. In addition to affording many opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and for commiserating on common challenges in education, seeing schools through a visitor’s eyes draws U.S. practices into sharper relief. Chinese visitors may be intrigued to see the use of tables or desks that are easily moved to different configurations, and may also express admiration for the U.S. commitment to special education programs. In Gregg’s view, Chinese educators come to examine specific aspects of American education such as American teaching methods, but when they arrive, they become curious about the overarching educational system.

Meanwhile, U.S. educators are often astonished at the depth of parental confidence in and esteem for teachers and administrators in China. They are sometimes surprised to find that Chinese urban schools are so well-funded and have state-of-the-art facilities, surpassing many schools the United States; and they may be equally startled to see the rudimentary facilities of rural schools. In fact, this dichotomy between urban and rural is the most pervasive chasm in Chinese life today, and Wang advises officials to endeavor to see both city and village schools during their stay.

In the end, both the Chinese and English languages agree that 眼见为实 or “seeing is believing.” Wang remembers bringing a group of educators to China, “Their jaws just dropped when they walked out of the terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport. This was after two days of introduction to China including videos, slides, and presentations. The people looked so surprised to see it with their own eyes, to smell the air.” Ultimately, Wang concludes, “they come to learn about China, and they end up learning from China.”

Author: Heather Clydesdale