Opposites and Opportunities

Chris Livaccari and Jeff Wang speaking with students in Harbin, China.

By Jeff Wang

During the latter half of June, my colleague Chris Livaccari and I went on a trip to China with a simple objective in mind: to find schools that are suitable for robust and long-term partnerships with American schools. It turned out to be more educational than we could have imagined.

The schools we visited were of varying grades, sizes, and characters. They were selected for us by the province's or city's commission of education. We know far too well that American visitors get the pomp and circumstance treatment at the best schools: rehearsed conversations with a few hand-picked student representatives, and scripted welcome speeches from the highest level of authority the host can muster. Rhetoric usually includes broad wishes for exchange, collaboration, and friendship — and there is nothing wrong with that. We explained to our hosts that we work with a group of American schools that are particularly interested in how to move relationships past what I call "MOU partnerships," which venture little beyond the Memorandum of Understanding itself.

Grueling test preparations are a reality for most Chinese students. Getting ready for tests is generally believed to be a serious barrier to collaborative projects with U.S. counterparts, both of which require considerable time and energy. This is unlikely to change systemwide in the short term by anyone's will. I would like to think of this reality as a filter that makes certain schools stand out: namely, those who acknowledge the realities of rigid testing, and are yet actively finding ways to make comprehensive education and effective learning possible.

We applied this filter by pressing this question on every school we visited: If international exchange activities are not part of the test and exam regiment, why is your school committed to this vision and therefore related activities?

Several principals, teachers, and education officials tell us that the shackles of rigid high-stake testing are exactly that: shackles. They brutally suppress the creativity and potential of the young students. And as responsible educators, they recognize this reality, but never rest in seeking new avenues to broaden access to opportunities for the students. We were truly impressed and convinced by those answers that clearly show vision beyond a perfect test score.

How do they turn vision to reality? Some schools have created different tracks for students with varying interests; some have designed an array of elective courses outside of the prescribed curriculum; and still others have engaged local businesses to offer an exciting array of authentic and experiential learning workshops.

Travel is a key lever. Several schools we visited have created opportunities for elementary school students to travel abroad. Some of the middle-grade students attended educational study missions abroad. High school students received targeted training and are encouraged to seek tertiary education abroad.

Other schools have regular video conferencing sessions where Chinese and American students share knowledge and opinions on a various topics, such as chemistry, geography, cuisine, etc.

We find ourselves humbled and encouraged by the incredible amount actions that are underway. These are the types of schools and students we look forward to introducing to American schools.

Image and footage credit: Asia Society; Flickr Creative Commons contributors Rex Pe, viajar24h.com, Ivy Dawned, eviltomthai, Magic Mirror, plastic spatula, slznax, Micah Sittig, Dan Zen, parhessiastes, gruntzooki; and iStockPhoto.com artists saipg, firer, martinlubpl, webphotographeer, crackerclips, himn, kosinak, bo1982, aaltazar, ymgerma, oleger, lightguard,mrloz, and music by arttunetech.