"So, what did you learn from Chinese teachers?"
I've been asked this question often since I began my year of recognition as National Teacher of the Year on June 1, 2011. I visited Beijing and Xian during a week-long trip sponsored by People to People Ambassador Programs which included cultural experiences and visits to Chinese schools. Given everything we hear about China's high performing students, I expected my discussions with Chinese teachers to focus on strategies for achieving success on standardized exams.
It's a conversation I was prepared to have. Having taught Advanced Placement Chemistry for over a decade, I'm no stranger to testing. But my Chinese colleagues didn't mention their test scores, nor did they inquire about mine. I quickly learned that we share a similar goal for our students: to promote innovation and foster independent thinking.
When I met with 12 chemistry teachers at Ba Yi High School in Beijing, "creativity" was the key word as they asked me many questions: How do you creatively teach the "theoretical" aspects of chemistry? How do you assess student creativity? What creative homework assignments do you give beyond question-and-answer exercises? If you allow students to engage in creative, open-ended experiments, how can you be sure to cover the curriculum so that students will pass their exams?
Every Chinese teacher I spoke with expressed concern with their nation's emphasis on testing. One teacher explained that students spend their entire final year of high school preparing for national examinations at the expense of other educational opportunities that would enable them to acquire a broad range of skills. She described Chinese students as "unhappy" because they are "forced" to drill for high-stakes examinations.
Still, we envy China's high test scores and are determined for U.S. students to measure up. Let's assume we achieve that goal: Where will we be? Exactly where the Chinese are now, realizing that paper-and-pencil testing alone does not prepare students to succeed in higher education, in the workplace, and in life. Mastering core content is essential in any subject area, but it is only one aspect of learning.
Chinese educators want more for their students. I was surprised by their dissatisfaction with their own educational system, encouraged by their eagerness to learn about ours. They listened intently as I spoke of the creative work of our teachers and students in the classroom; they were curious about electives and our variety of course offerings, and they were impressed by our vision to educate all of our nation's diverse students, including students with special needs.
My cultural exchange with Chinese teachers showed me that despite differences in our instructional approaches, we share many similarities. Teachers are teachers, and our primary goal is to help students achieve success. But we also share the challenge of redefining educational "success" to include not only mastery of content but also development of the vast array of skills students need to succeed in a global society, including critical thinking, creative problem solving, and collaboration.
When I return to my classroom next fall, I'll recall my rich discussion with my Chinese colleagues in the chemistry department at Ba Yi High School. Despite our geographic distance, we'll be working toward the same goals: connecting with students, bringing the "theory" of chemistry to life, and designing engaging activities to spark our students' curiosity. If I have another opportunity for people-to-people exchanges in China, I plan to learn some Chinese and continue the conversation about our educational priorities.
But rather than worry about the Chinese term for "test scores," I'll begin by learning the word for "creativity."