Chinese Language Teaching and Learning: A View from the Ground

Don't miss the forest for the trees, the author advises. (Lisa-Blue/iStockPhoto)

by Chris Livaccari

The Ming dynasty philosopher Wang Yangming is famous for his formulation that “knowledge and action are one” (知行合一), and my professional experiences—especially in education and international diplomacy—have confirmed for me the truth of this principle.

I’ve often had the feeling that I’m being prepared by knowledge for experiences I’m about to have. The best example I have is of spending a wonderful semester in graduate school studying the Indian epic poem the Mahabharata, still one of my all-time favorite works of world literature. I one day walked into an Indian restaurant and was told that I looked far too young to be the principal of a school, and that it didn’t seem a good idea for someone so young to have such responsibility. After further conversation that displayed my knowledge of the epic poem, however, the proprietor acknowledged that since I knew the Mahabharata, I was well prepared for any life challenges that being a principal might throw my way.

This experience led me to reflect on the ways in which my studies of ancient literature and philosophy helped me navigate the complexities of international relations during my time in the U.S. Foreign Service. I came to see clearly that hours spent with the works of Confucius and Zhuang Zi, and The Three Kingdoms paid off when dealing with difficult White House staffers or all the bureaucratic hoops one has to jump through in that world.

Returning to a position in a school after four years at Asia Society and building a national network of Chinese language programs, I now see another way in which Wang Yangming’s maxim holds true. I’ve gone from the view at 30,000 feet (working broadly with the field at Asia Society) to the view from the ground (working intensively within a single school community). And while I fretted endlessly in the first few weeks that the time I spent outside a school environment might not translate well to the realities of the classroom and the school yard, I’ve found confirmation that the knowledge gained through my work at Asia Society has not only prepared me for the challenges I now face, but has also highlighted for me the critical importance of the work that Asia Society continues to do.

Furthermore, the “unity of knowledge and experience” seems to be a great guiding principle for students as well. Just weeks after I arrived at my school, we hosted the visit of thirty exchange students and their teachers from a partner school in Hangzhou. I saw our students shine as they began to take on roles as young ambassadors and hosts for their peers from China. Working together on projects in class, I saw our students’ sense of pride as their Chinese language skills honed through classroom practice began to translate naturally into success with accomplishing practical, real-world tasks. Similarly, during a week celebrating culinary culture, I saw our students learn about their senses of taste, smell, and touch as they encountered different foods and ingredients, cooked with their teachers, and even interacted with professional chefs. The line between “knowing” and “doing” for these students—much as for Wang Yangming—had began to blur.

At their core, Asia Society’s Chinese Language Initiatives aim to create more robust Chinese language programs in U.S. schools by offering them more opportunities to connect and collaborate with each other and their peers in China, and to help teachers redefine the terms of language instruction to include more student-centered, inquiry- and discovery-based learning, greater integration of technology, and more authentic learning as well as real-world connections in the curriculum.

Stepping into a school environment, I now realize more than ever how critical these priorities are for all of us.

I see the need for faculty and administrators to be part of a larger field and not just be working in a vacuum; to be connected in robust and substantive ways with other practitioners across the country; and for students to understand at every step of their educational journey that what they are doing is preparing them for life beyond the walls of their school.

Now being in a school and working directly with teachers and students, I realize how much I was sitting at the feet of many masters: all of the teachers, students, and administrators in our Confucius Classrooms and their partner schools in China; our colleagues across the global Asia Society network; and all of our partner institutions, most especially Hanban and East China Normal University. And as I continue to collaborate with teachers and students, I’m going to stick to the organizing principle of the “unity of knowledge and experience” by continually asking myself—and our teachers—to make sure that everything we do within the walls of the school is relevant and can be applied beyond school. And we’ll continue looking to Asia Society for guidance, leadership, and more opportunities to connect and collaborate.

Chris Livaccari is Upper Elementary Principal and Chinese Program Director at International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, CA, and Senior Advisor for Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society.