During my recent trip to Beijing, I had the privilege of visiting several middle school students participating in a math education pilot program. It was a real eye opener…
I was in Beijing hosting the 2012 HP Catalyst Summit attended by nearly 150 educators from 21 countries. The pre-summit activities included a tour to Beijing #80 Middle School. The following day, about 40 students and teachers from several secondary schools across Beijing joined the Catalyst Summit for a “Celebration of Mathematics” poster session where students shared how they use graphing calculators for a deeper exploration of mathematics. Suffice it to say that my preconceived notions about education in China turned out to be woefully inaccurate.
Hospitality & Respect
For the visit to Beijing #80 Middle School, my first reaction was the extent of the hospitality that was being extended to our group of about 70 summit delegates. We were welcomed with open arms and much excitement by the administration, teachers, and students. There wasn’t a “red carpet”, but there might as well have been, as the hospitality was incredible.
In visiting several classes, it was clear that there was in general a culture of deep respect. Teachers were honored, students stood when replying, and the classrooms were (almost eerily) quiet when the teacher was speaking. One class in particular, an art class where grade 7 students were learning to do ink painting in the style of the Chinese painter Qi Baishi, was calmer than a library – with soft traditional Chinese music playing in the background while the teacher demonstrated the brush strokes (projected by a document camera) needed to paint a crab.
(Left: Grade 7 student working with pen and ink; Right: teacher station with touch-screen, document camera - and "live subjects")
I asked several adults if classes were always this quiet. The answers ranged from, “They are shy students” (perhaps because of all the visitors), to “In an art class, it is expected to be done quietly and contemplatively”. But it was clear that it was a deeper culture of respect and order.
Arts & Culture
It turns out that the painting class was not the only art class we visited. There was also a class of grade 7 students learning about traditional Chinese knot-tying, and choir class singing in Chinese and English. Underscored by all the artwork in the hallways and a sun-filled gallery of student work on one of the floors, you couldn’t escape the unspoken value placed on art and traditional culture. It’s not all about “core subjects”. The idea of the (+) in STEM(+), ensuring that the arts is part of a student's academic experience, is not only possible - but it is viewed at this school as essential.
Fourth floor hallway gallery, Beijing #80 Middle School
Learning to make a traditional Chinese knot
The Teacher’s Role
I spoke to one of the adults helping with the tour. It turned out she was a teacher at the school – which made me anxious that we were keeping her from her students. When I asked her how many students she teaches during the year, she said about 80 – and she follows them for three years. I was more surprised to learn that she only taught two classes per day. The rest of the day she graded papers, helped colleagues, or interacted with students in out-of-class activities.
The students we met at the summit were all participating in a pilot program by the Ministry of Education to pilot the use of graphing calculators to support math inquiry. This is apparently driven by a need to expand math learning beyond the basic “computational skills” that students are quite accomplished in. There is a growing recognition of the importance of mathematical thinking and inquiry, which graphing calculators can enable.
Grade 7 students sharing graphing calculator discoveries during the HP Catalyst Summit "Celebration of Mathematics"
For example, one grade 7 student showed me how he was exploring how he can plot sine functions on polar coordinates to get beautiful rosette patterns. I asked him how he discovered this; he explained that he “read the manual”, then started playing with it. I did NOT confess that at grade 7 I had no idea what a sine wave was nor did I have a clue that there was such thing as “polar coordinates”. Wow.
The Digital/Opportunity Divide
Despite the remarkable demonstrations from the grade 7 students we met, there still remains remarkable educational challenges across China. Professor ZHANG Linxiu shared a summit plenary presentation on the work underway to undergird rural education in China. Like many other large countries around the world, equitable access to high quality learning is still an unmet aspiration. In partnership with Stanford University, educators in China are engaged in the Rural Education Action Project (REAP) to address the complicated digital/opportunity divide challenges in China (http://reap.stanford.edu/). Not surprisingly, the necessary interventions are far more complex than just “schooling” – a lesson being learned in many school systems around the world.
I returned home with a new perspective – not only on education in China, with all its surprises and complexities, but also with a clear reminder of the incredible dedication I see in educators around the world. Students are our nations’ treasures – and thankfully there are amazing and dedicated educators everywhere who know this well…
Jim Vanides, B.S.M.E, M.Ed.
Education Program Manager
Sustainability & Social Innovation