Joseph L. Hartman
With respect to English language acquisition, Chinese and American schools have many similarities in their organizational structure and curriculum development. Yet there are marked contrasts in the curriculum delivery methods and student achievement philosophies each country exhibits. America’s English classrooms are noticeably less technologically integrated and less rigid than those in China, whose goal is to educate with efficiency through focus and familiarity. The differences seen in the two classrooms are indicative of a deeper philosophical divide between the two countries, pitting the Chinese belief in maximizing student potential against the American belief in leaving no child behind. Both could benefit from an adoption of the strengths of the other. For America this means an embrace of personal computers for every student, increases in technological integration across the curriculum, training for teacher involvement in the utilization of technology, and focused measures for pushing those at the head of the learning curve. For China it means embracing a balance of less defined individual lessons, increases in student-selected content, further integration of contextualization, and defined measures for ensuring the opportunity of success for all students.
Both Chinese and American schools depend upon their governments to dictate the content students study in every grade. Beyond this guidance however, the institutions in both countries are afforded the freedom to decide how best to deliver that content to their respective students. This paper will seek to analyze the differences in recent methods adopted by the two countries with respect to their English language curriculum, hypothesize about the possible underlying causes for those differences, and explore how each country may be able to benefit from the experiences of the other.
The American Model:
Integration, as witnessed in recent English classrooms in America, refers less to computers and software than to literature and books. Moving away from such historical staples of English development as weekly spelling and vocabulary tests, modern methods of English teaching emphasize context over content. Spelling and vocabulary words are no longer photocopied from long lists in standalone workbooks, but are instead taken from the pages of passages or novels the students are reading in class. Often, these words are previewed by the instructor to prepare the students for what they will be reading. In this way, expansion of the language is accompanied by a contextualization that enables the students to apply their prior learning towards a more effective synthesis of new information.
Current Language Arts education trends in elementary schools continue to expand upon this integration, utilizing several different types of reading strategies to encourage students as they acquire greater mastery of the language. In the very young grades teachers may utilize a picture-walk, a read-aloud, popcorn reading, or the lean-in lean-out strategy among others. The forefront of current English language curriculum in elementary schools is, however, dominated by class reading groups.
The Reading Groups Model allows students to independently advance through a self selected series of books read both individually and during designated class times. Reading during class time takes place in small groups of students with like books and may implement a number of comprehension strategies ranging from vocabulary study to character analysis. This is also the time when the instructor is free to circulate the class and provide assistance or evaluation to individual students. The Reading Groups Model may be implemented as a complement to more traditional spelling and vocabulary tests, or used as the source for such strategies. It relies upon student self-motivation for success and is highly structured out of necessity. Several students reading different books simultaneously denote an organized system for tracking student progress, and this can result in a high learning curve for beginning teachers. The balances within the Reading Group Model can also be difficult to maintain, but are immensely beneficial as they aim to simultaneously allow the maximum amount of individual student advancement, high levels of class independence, and ample teacher oversight.
Technological integration in American English classes often applies only to the instructor. A CD-ROM with pre-made lesson plans and answer keys may be included with the Teacher’s Edition of class text books, and occasionally includes audio for the stories in the text and limited visuals. Unlike the Chinese curriculum however, the software is rarely intended for interactive use by the students themselves. The primary reason for the lack of technological integration in English lessons is due to a low ratio of students to computers in the classroom. Most American classrooms are equipped with only one computer for every four or five students, thus often relegating the equipment to a secondary status within the curriculum. More often used for word processing and evaluations of learned material than anything else, computer use is also hindered by a lack of training on the part of the instructors. Because of this, even the availability most schools provide of a computer lab with ample hardware for each student fails to motivate the average English teacher to integrate to the greatest degree these resources into their class curriculum.
The Chinese Model:
For the modern Chinese student, integration in the English classroom refers to the rapidly growing inclusion of technology into the lessons. This refers to Flash programs, the Internet, personal computers for every student, a large projector, and corresponding workbooks and teaching materials for both the students and instructor with which to support it all. Each lesson is highly structured and follows a predictable pattern with teachers utilizing an array of proven and successful strategies to engage their learners. Songs are used to review with the students at the beginning of the lesson, new material is previewed on the blackboard and projection screen before the class is permitted to explore it using individual notebook computers. A class review of the lesson is conducted using interactive games afterwards, and the students end each lesson by role playing with partners the scenarios they’ve seen.
The Internet lesson content is compiled by various community teachers and overseen by The Modern Education Technology Research Institute, a government body that oversees the distribution of the lessons to area schools. Lessons are generally organized into units, such as “family”, “jobs”, or “food and drink”, with the units then organized into a website template with different pages such as “games”, “stories”, and “songs”. The content of each page is generally delivered through Flash programs that are found on the Internet and then copied. Any required modifications to the content are made by the teachers themselves using Flash or another appropriate editing program. Because these multimedia lessons are available on each school’s intranet server, every teacher and student is able to easily access it.
The Chinese model, while efficient and designed to take advantage of the most effective and proven teaching strategies, does not afford its students the same individualized choices for learning as the American model. While there are multiple routes available to each student within the lesson, such as different games or stories (some of which are more difficult than others), in essence every student in the classroom learns the same lesson at the same pace as the rest of the class. Additionally, the context that American teachers provide for their students through the Reading Groups Model is a challenge for the Internet lessons to match. For example: a lesson may be about different kinds of food and include a flash-based game of Concentration with a song about a pickle at the circus, but this leaves something to be desired in the area of contextual relevance. In theory, the units could be integrated to a greater degree and eventually match or even better the level of contextualization offered in reading groups, but this is not currently the case.
Modern models for English instruction in America and China clearly vary on several different levels. Less clear is how and why those models came to differ so greatly despite similarities in their goals and origins within the educational system of each country. The differences in how Chinese and American classrooms have come to embrace technology are responsible for some of the variations, but many of them would be present even if computers had never been invented.
The Philosophical Models:
Summer school does not exist in Shenzhen. Student advancement from grade to grade depends entirely on age, regardless of whether or not the student is able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the curriculum. This runs directly contrary to the model for student advancement in America where a student who fails to learn the subject matter may not only be required to attend intersession classes to compensate for the lost time, but may perhaps be held back to repeat the school year a second time. No other circumstance more clearly demonstrates the underlying difference in the educational philosophies of the two countries as this.
In its most simplistic form, the Chinese educational philosophy views school as a forum within which students compete for success. The simplistic American philosophy views school as an institution of entitlement, within which equality must be assured and success all but guaranteed. The former could be seen as unfair to the slower learners, the latter as being unfair to the high achievers. The debate could most aptly be summarized as Chinese efficiency versus American equality.
The roots of this philosophical divide help define not only the different approaches to student support, but also partly explain the differences in elementary class sizes (40 – 50 students in China, 20 – 30 in the United States) and school sizes (hundreds of students in the U.S. versus thousands in China). The costs of public schooling in each country (free for 13 years in the U.S., heavily subsidized for 9 years in China) and books (provided by schools in America, purchased by parents in China) differ along these lines as well. Employing specialists who focus on single subjects of teaching is more efficient, if less nurturing, than employing teachers who instruct in all areas of learning; so this is what Chinese schools do from the earliest grades, while American schools typically wait until the middle school level.
Neither country dares to assume that its educational philosophy is without shortcomings. Similarly neither pretends not to be aware of the merits in contrary views. What often goes unanswered on both sides though is the question of how gains made in one respect can be made without resulting losses in another. Alas, education is not a zero-sum game.
Lessons to Learn:
American English classes would benefit from a move towards increased integration of technology into the curriculum like that seen in China. To effectively accomplish this denotes greater numbers of technological hardware - personal computers for every student at a minimum - hours of teacher training to instill confidence, competence, and to assure use of the technology, as well as centralized oversight of the ongoing curriculum changes to occur.
American students would also benefit from an increased emphasis on the part of schools to maximize student potential across all ability levels, especially those at the high end. Increased utilization of technology may hold some solutions for the most apt students to continually be challenged without diverting resources from the least apt, but other options are surely available. If intersession instruction is provided for those students who fail to meet expectations during the school term, why not make it available to those students who surpass expectations?
English classes in China would benefit from an increase in structural balance and organization like that seen in the Reading Groups Model. This requires an embrace of more flexible and student-selected lesson objectives to equalize the straightforward ones already being taught, as well as new focus on increasingly infusing lessons with relevant contextualization. Greater directional oversight of the model and further collaboration between lesson creators will eventually result in a learning system as competently structured and free as the Reading Groups Model, but with immensely greater learning efficiency and engagement potential.
Finally, China's schools would be well served to consider employing a system of support for failing students such as summer school or remedial courses. The inherent scholastic competition among students will only benefit from increases in the competency of all participants. A reduction in class sizes too would benefit students, as future increases in student learning independence will quickly warrant increases in individualized instructor guidance.
Both China and America stand on the brink of a great educational revolution. The promise modern technology holds for students and teachers is astonishing and inspiring, but will not inherently solve every complication associated with education. Ensuring effective employment of these technological tools equally across student populations will require both countries to continually analyze lessons learned in the past and implement adjustments in the future. It will be only beneficial if these lessons can be learned second-hand and the adjustments made jointly, with international collaboration providing the knowledge and experiences to do so.