Thursday, May 24, 2012

Chinese v.s. American Students

Yesterday, I taught my two Chinese critical thinking classes for the last time.  Although it was a little disappointing for me to have to adapt my original teaching plans so drastically, I still had a very positive experience with the students.  We were able to discuss the structure of argument, different types of evidence and how to evaluate it, language issues that are problematic in making good arguments, and fallacies of reasoning.  As a teacher who is always looking to improve on my classroom strategies, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the differences between my American and Chinese students, the things that I thought went really well, and also the things that were a bit challenging.

My brother Keith asked me the other day in an e-mail how my American students stack up against the Chinese students.  Keep in mind that I'm basing this judgment on very little time in the classroom, but my initial impressions are that the Chinese students are better students overall.  That's not to say that they are smarter or have greater capacity to learn.  But, by any really objective standard, one would have to say they are better students because of the value they put on their own education and the amount of time they invest each day in studying and trying to better their futures.  The Chinese students get up at about 6 a.m. every morning to start school and they usually finish around dinner time.  Often, they will have extra classes after dinner and on the weekends.  It's absolutely shocking how hard they work.  I asked a Chinese mother of some elementary school aged children why they study so hard in China and she attributed it to the high population.  She said it was absolutely imperative that they stand out among so many of their peers and they are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals.  I'm sure most teachers can relate to that very bright American student that shows up for class early, pays very careful attention in class, asks relevant questions, and performs well on every assignment.  Now imagine having every student in your class be like those few students.  As a small example of what I'm talking about, let me tell you about the attendance.  I took role every day in two separate classes of 31 and 32 students.  Not one student missed a single class on any day.  I couldn't believe it!  In this way, the students were exactly like the stereotypes we have in America about how Chinese students are very dedicated.  It is exactly the way we think it is.  

Other experiences I had were nothing like what I thought they would be.  I thought the Chinese students would be very very quiet, unwilling to talk in class, and not very receptive to my very relaxed and humorous (attempted) style of teaching.  They were nothing like this at all.  After breaking the ice on the first day, they fully adapted to my style and talked and participated almost as much as my American students.  I do have to qualify that last statement because American students are very active and it would be tough to beat them at their own game.  But, I was so pleasantly surprised at the active participation in my classes in China.  One kid told me his other classes were VERY strict and that they weren't really allowed to talk in class.  I think the perceptions we have of the Chinese come from some real observations of the learning environment here, but what we underestimate is their ability to adapt to new kinds of educational experiences.  They are pretty dang smart and capable of a great deal more than to just sit their seats and absorb information through a more structured approach.  

I should also comment on some things that did not go well.  First, I found it very hard to use the classroom I was assigned because it contains a small stage in the front of the room with a very large command center, which I've described in previous blogs.  It made it really hard to move around the room, which is something I like to do back at SUU.  Also, the students are very used to using these headsets to listen to the professor lecture.  When they have questions, the professor has to push a button to allow them to speak.  It's a very controlled environment.  Even after a few days of class, the students were still ready with their headsets on when I would walk in the room.  Then, they would suddenly remember that I didn't want to use them and then they would take them off.  We actually only used them when I had a video clip to show as an illustration.  After adjusting to my methods, though, the students stopped raising their hands and shouted out their answers like my American students will do.  I must admit that although I was pleasantly surprised at how many of my examples they understood, I still know there were things that they could not grasp.  I would often define concepts two or three different ways and use several examples to clarify them, but I'm still not sure if they understood some of them fully.  Their body language showed that much of it was sinking in, but I did not have enough time to test them on the material, so I can't be fully certain how much they "got."  Regardless of the amount, there still is something very cool about teaching a critical thinking class in China.  One necessary precursor to any kind of advocacy in this world is the ability to construct and evaluate arguments and to use reasoning in persuading others.  

After I finished my last class, I thanked my students for being so warm and welcoming and they said "see ya next year" in one collective voice.  We then took pictures as a class and I talked to several students that now have a genuine interest in coming to SUU on exchange.  I hope they can make that happen and I've been coordinating with the liaison here between HNU and SUU to help them with their applications.  

Took this shot just before the start of class.

Of the 31 students in the first class, only 2 were males.

Class #1 after we were all finished.  I'm not sure why the one girl is holding my box of melba toast.  

This was another teacher in the college.  He had office hours during my class, so I was always harassing him to help me with the computer system.  

Each class goes for an hour and 45 minutes with a 10 minute break in between.  Most of the students just sat in their seats and talked to me during the break.  

I love this picture.  I was showing them the "Battle of Wits" scene from the Princess Bride as an illustration of various fallacies of reasoning.  Clearly, they did NOT find it funny at all.  Other clips that I thought were far less amusing they thought were hysterical, but not this one!

All these kids were just so sweet.

Picture of me with the second class.

1 comment:

  1. Best blog yet. Keep 'em coming.
    Maybe address the political environment.
    How actually "communist" is the country? Besides the statutes and whatnot, does it feel like a Soviet country?
    Were you warned not to talk politics with the students? If so, who warned you and how? Are there off-limits topics like that blind activist Chen? Taiwan? North Korea? Have you asked the Chinese about these things?
    Attitudes towards the West? Animosity about anything?
    Can you surf the Internet freely or do you detect filtering?
    Why are there no males in your class? I thought China was something like 60% male.