Partner / Wednesday Wisdom

Teaching…or being taught?

KarlToday’s Post comes from Karl Laubacher, a student currently taking a gap year with Thinking Beyond BordersTBB provides gap year opportunities for students who want to solve global issues by learning the complexities of aid directly from communities and then committing their careers to applying that expertise. Read more about how their mission aligns to EA from their founder’s post here.

My time in China is beginning to wind down and it feels like we just got here yesterday. We were recently invited to spend the morning at the local primary school. This school seemed to be the central location of the village and likely the largest building and institution that is here.  For a primary school, it’s really big, three stories of classrooms as well as boarding rooms for the students in the villages further down the road. Yep, you start boarding really early here in China, getting the students ready for boarding for the secondary schools and beyond.

As we entered, we were greeted to a very loud reception by some of the youngest children who were outside for something like recess, maybe PE. After a bit though, the high fives were cut off as the bell rang and the entirety of the school came outside for the beginning of morning exercises, something that is standardized throughout the Chinese education system. Every class gets into lines on little red plus signs all over the ground and the music begins with a pretty cheesy song and the voiceovers start counting out the beat: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8; as everyone participates many stretches and what look like simple dance moves. It’s a pretty strange sight to see, something so standardized and set in stone, that happens at the same time everyday, no matter what, where ever you maybe in China.  It gives you a sense of what they might be trying to foster in the school system.

Schoool in XibianAfter those awesome moves of morning warm-up, we all broke out into our groups to teach for an hour. I climbed to the top floor, past a room of children chanting out a lesson in unison at the top of their lungs, seemingly without a teacher present.  Our room was just down the hall and they had begun a lesson too but, as soon as my mates and I came in the room fell to a dead silence, something you never ever hear in school anymore (especially with younger kids) except for possibly at test time.

It is really nerve racking to go up in front of a room of kids, without any real lesson plan in place and basing off what you want to teach them on an assumption of their English language ability. We had gotten some simple greetings during our time but what we didn’t really expect is that the students had a really surprising grasp of English, with numbers to a thousand, some body parts, and colors. Why had I made the assumptions I did about what their English level would be? To this day of three years of high school French, I barely know as much as these kids know in English!

Coming up with ideas on the spot for what to do next is definitely not what I want to be doing. I felt unprepared. In a few weeks I will have the opportunity to teach again while in India, and although I don’t know yet how to prepare I know I want my lessons to actually be meaningful to the students. I now have massive amounts of respect for my teachers as well as those who are choosing to go into teaching as a career. You all are doing some really amazing and tough work. Truly.

But there is also the question of just how much this style of learning is really doing for the students. It seems that they can pick up on subjects pretty easily, some more than others. This method is clearly successful within the Chinese school system. But I wonder, what affect the tedious memorization has on creating a group of students ready to go out and make decisions critically.  I guess there is merit in being very dedicated and knowing a subject in the way of memorization but, there is a lot to be said for teaching students how to think.  I wonder just how different this style of education is to the United States? Is it really different at all? Maybe teaching to the test is doing the same thing rather than fostering growth in many sectors.

I know that a lot of readers are currently studying and maybe having the two sides of this debate: huge lectures and big tests as well as a smaller seminar class.  I would like to know what you all think on this topic.  Also, I encourage all of you to thank a teacher, one of your favorites. After all that they go through, day in and out, I promise you they will love it.

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