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Marg's reflections


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									 Reflections on China 2010

I was given a wonderful opportunity in the September school holidays to travel on a
Study Tour to China. This tour was funded by the Federal Government and the
Catholic Education Office and its purpose was for Principals to gain a greater
understanding of China, its education system and its culture.

It has now been two months since I returned in which time I have read with interest
news articles to gain some perspective on what I had seen, in the light of others

I have come to understand two things about China. The first is that China for the past
fifty or so years has deconstructed its society and reconstructed it twice:
      firstly it has moved from a country with a highly organised society following
         the one ruler, to a communist country, then from a communist society into a
         one party society. I believe that this has been largely a surface deconstruction;
      secondly that China is a country of many complex levels, and that Chinese
         culture and people are complex as the country.

The country I saw was unexpected, modern, expansive and very financially aware.
My initial introduction to China was a juxtaposition of the 19th and 21st century
Shanghai. After the plane we experienced our first “Bullet Train” or “Maglev Train
(Magnetic levitation) ride. Travelling at speeds over 400kms an hour this modern
mode of travel still amazes me. The Third World China of the media could not be
seen. The people of China appear to be extremely ordered. Is the Chinese population
ordered by cultural expectations and history or by fear of retribution? I asked myself
this question many times in China.

This was most evident at Expo where the wait to visit the Chinese Pavilion was at
least four hours. We were lucky enough as a delegation from Australia to queue jump
and it only took us one and a quarter hours to get inside. The Pavilion took pride of
place. Overlooking all Expo, this great red four-storey building, juts out of the sky,
and all this leaving you with the impression of China as a superior Super Power. In
the queue we made many friends with the locals, each keen to have their photo taken
with us and for their children to practice their English skills. The queues were very
ordered, patient and calm. We Australians waited with impatience even though our
wait was much less. Once inside, we waited again, and we seemed to be the only
visitors surprised by this. By the time we were at the door of the exhibition we were in
a fast moving tunnel of people.

It was amazing, with an animated Chinese classical drawing, some of the terracotta
warriors, and China’s take on “a clean and sustainable” China. It was amazingly
colourful, very artistic with optic fibre colour everywhere. It left you with the
impression that the Chinese are willing and able to take their place as world leaders. I
am sure this was the story we were meant to leave with. Our path through the
exhibition was very much guided, the crowd moved quickly and us with it. I felt that
we were there to get an impression without time to reflect or ponder on what was
being portrayed as China.

Outside the exhibited there were rows of “Red Guard” very young standing to
attention, looking straight ahead. Many of our group wanted to take their photo of
these boys and this seemed to upset our guides who cautioned us. There seemed to be
a deep respect and almost a fear of the Guard, even these boys who seemed so young.
Maybe this was a small indication of how China is still controlled and in some ways
fearful. A visit to the banks on the Bund was also enlightening these huge edifices
with no clients, yet many employees. I still puzzle over these huge 18th and 19th
Century European Buildings that do not seem to serve the general population of

Part of our tour was the Museum in Shanghai. At the Museum you could see that
China was very much treasuring their past, and valuing the history of their many
dynasties and the different races that compile the population of China. The Museum
appeared to be very new, what surprised me was there was no mention of the People’s
uprising this seemed to be of no importance to China today. I formed the impression
that the history of China was being salvaged, and somehow rewritten. Are the Chinese
ashamed of this part of their history or is it so in the present that it is not viewed as

The very old icons such as the Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and the
Summer Palace had a “just preserved” look about them. Some of the work had been
detailed in a side exhibition. It gave me the impression that much of the history of
China pre revolution had been dismantled, but now as it moves into a country
available and active in the world, the focus was strongly moving back. This caused
me to reflect on why this would be. The only conclusion I could come to was that
China was so busy creating itself initially as a Communist country that it was happy
to rid itself of its opulent and excessive past. Re-education of its people was now
well and truly in the past and China is now ready to show some of its history to the
outside world. The Olympics seemed to be the catalyst for this change in attitude.

Part of the aim of the trip was to begin to understand the Chinese Education System
and for Chinese teachers to interact with us. I was enormously impressed with what
China had achieved in this area in such a short time. I had expectations of a system
floundering under the weight of students, providing a minimalist curriculum. China is
running the biggest education system in the world which enrols 20% of the world’s
student population using only 2% of the world’s education funding.

Our speakers were quite generous with their honesty about the challenges these
figures give China’s Education System. They talked of the inequalities between Urban
and Rural schools and the Policy Directions set in 2009 which will in some ways
address this. These new Policy directions are also driven by the population who want
a more flexible style of education, not driven by competiveness and examination. I
believe the one child policy has contributed to this type of education system. As was
pointed out to me, the one child in a family often has the financial responsibility for
four or maybe even six other adults. To fulfil this responsibility a “good job” is
necessary with a high income. This means that there is enormous pressure placed on
University Entrance. Even with 2,689 Universities there are not enough places.

Australia has always been a preferred place to study, second only to Japan for Chinese
students. It is considered a safe and healthy environment, where overseas students are
well supported. The state of the Aussie dollar makes this now very difficult for
families. The USA and UK are now much cheaper options and Australia is losing its
share of the Chinese student market. The new Policy of the Chinese Government is to
nurture creativity and problem solving in its students. This concept is called “Suzhi
Education” calls for reform across subject curriculum, teaching materials, delivery
methods and the examination system. This rings a bell for all of us here in Australia
as we have been walking down this path for the past 10 years. One wonders how long
it will take China to reach these educational aims.

Recent PISA results show us that Shanghai’s students receive the highest results in
many areas. This is the first time these students have taken part in these tests and have
done very well. I was surprised, I must say, when I read this having visited a few
schools on our tour. The students receive what we believe is a minimalist education,
which is textbook and teacher focused. Their work load is enormous and the pressure
to do well, extreme. The results may be good in a test but is this sustainable in their
society. Students who have little experience of life beyond study, students who cannot
use their learning to problem solve or to be creative. This brings into question in my
mind the quality of the PISA testing not the quality of the education we are providing
here in Australia.

We were lucky enough to spend some time in a school in Nanjing and talk to teachers
about the way we teach and watch them teach. The teachers sat in our classes, took
notes and asked questions later. They were very worried about losing control of the
classes, and letting the students make decisions for themselves was in a sense losing
control. Each teacher in the primary school in China teaches a subject area, there is no
classroom teacher. In Australia we believe that the relationship that is developed is
one of the most important factors that influence student outcomes. The chance to
build this relationship is not there in China. The class size is also huge – fifty is very
common, and many classes are much larger. Developing a relationship with students
would be very difficult. The classroom size does not allow for flexibility, nor for
individualism, or movement. So to achieve their new aims for education a change of
the concept of classroom space, timetable, and teaching duties would be necessary.

The Principal of the school I visited in Nanjing was a young dynamic woman who
had studied in Australia. The majority of her staff were under thirty five years. The
Principal seems to have a warm relationship with the students and staff. When I asked
her what were her plans for her future career, she responded that she would be happy
to do what was asked of her. There didn’t appear to be a promotion system, where
teacher’s worked their way into positions according to their skills and talents. The
Principal of a school visited by a colleague collected the Principal business card
which stated she was the local Secretary of the Communist Party. It was hard to find
out how people become Principals or if there was a clear promotional path. The
schools we visited were impressive, their size, the buildings and the resources
available to the students. This differed markedly to the school in the country the foot
of the Great Wall, which looked very poor and photos of the teachers showed them to
be very old. Naturally we visited the best of schools as a Chinese delegation of
teachers in Melbourne would visit our best schools.

I found China magnificent, complicated, foreign and at the same time perplexing.
Unfortunately I didn’t spend enough time to really absorb the complexity of the
culture that was portrayed. I felt that I didn’t really understand the people at all, even
though they appeared to be friendly and accommodating. There is a reserve that we
did not penetrate. I also came away not understanding to any great extent their
Political system. I was given a beautiful fan in Nanjing which I displayed at school
with other photos and memorabilia. The fan had Chinese calligraphy on it. This
calligraphy praises China as the mother country and is really propaganda (or so I have
been told by Mandarin speaking parents). This fan was presented to me by children as
a welcome gift. Is the politics so interwoven in this country that it is not identifiable
even to the people who live there? Or was the fan given to me deliberately to make a

My experiences on the tour have enriched me enormously and have helped me to
understand some of the culture of China. I found the Chinese people to be respectful,
friendly generous, cultured and kind. I found the country stimulating and it reinforced
my view that as educationalist we need to look towards Asia and to skill our students
for a world which is dominated by our Asian neighbours. But I also wonder if we will
ever really understand the Chinese people, China’s society and culture. I plan to
return to reacquaint myself with China and my unanswered questions.

Marg Batt

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