In 2011, the national education ministry in China mandated the formation of teaching and learning centers at all institutions of higher learning.
This past November 23rd and 24th, I had the opportunity to travel to China to visit with teaching and learning center directors as well as faculty and honor students at Sichuan University in Chendu. I had been invited, along with three other individuals, to engage in a set of activities over a four day conference sponsored by the university for center directors from across China. At the conference, the four of us made individual presentations in the morning and in the afternoon engaged in breakout sections based on various themes. The focus of the conference was “Learning Centered Education: Idea, Method, and Assessment.”
My presentation in the morning conference was on the topic of co-creation of value with the students in our classes, focusing on the balance across the typology of teaching we employ in our center (see John Peters’ article). The other talks included knowledge of innovation in engineering education, the flipped classroom, opportunities to enhance interaction between students and teachers, and the balance between Chinese traditions and new ways of thinking about the delivery of education. In my afternoon breakout session, I met with center directors interested in addressing concerns for new centers and employing a strategic planning process.
In addition, three of us were asked to address a large group of new faculty at Sichuan University and their administrators, approximately 500 people. The President introduced us with an impassioned speech about the need to transition beyond the old ways of teaching (teacher-centered model) to more active, engaged, and experiential teaching, as well as taking advantage of opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement. He had visited a number of universities in the States and had reviewed some of the significant body of western education literature over the last 25 years reflecting the distinct advantage of active, engaged pedagogies. His speech was actually quite inspiring and forward-thinking given the long traditions in education in China and the cultural dimension of power-distance (see Hofstede’s five dimensions of culture) which is far more pronounced in China as compared to western countries.
When my turn came, I decided to take the opportunity to model a little active engaged learning in a large classroom, turning the room into my class. The audience, especially the young teachers, appeared very engaged as I walked aisles; employed examples of “think-pair-share” and engaged with individuals. I think, for most of them, someone actually teaching like this was a first.
All in all, with some sightseeing and shopping, I had a wonderful experience and have many new friends. It was very educational for me.
What did I learn? I learned that the academy, not necessarily political arenas, is where important exchanges are occurring. I learned that the young people in China (young teachers and talented students) are extremely curious about other cultures. We had several very meaningful conversations about differences in government and the strengths and weaknesses of the one party versus multi-party political process. The young people are extremely concerned about the air pollution which we experienced firsthand. I felt like I was back in my childhood in the 50’s with L.A. smog. I saw with my own eyes what can only be describe as the ultimate building boom. There were new 30-50 story buildings going up everywhere. However, I suspect from walking through numerous buildings that building codes are not nearly as stringent in China as in the U.S. Chendu is just a normal midsized city in China of 6 million or more people. There are 1.2 billion people in the province of Sichuan alone. I learned that the Chinese have a distinctly different set of driving rules. The only way I can describe this is “the first one to the spot gets it,” regardless of whether it is a person, bicycle, motor scooter, car or bus. And, while there are lanes and crosswalks on city streets, they’re ignored. You take your life in your hands in a crosswalk on a crowded street. I learned that Sichuan University has three campuses in Chendu and that their students and most faculty members live on campus. There is a campus just for freshmen and sophomores that is larger in physical space and population than most of our public universities. I also learned that Sichuan cuisine is among the best and spiciest in the world, with great variety. Last, I really appreciated the genuine care, respect and concern I was afforded by everyone. The opportunity to interact with the Chinese culture, feel how collectivism is internalized and acted upon, and yet experience the sheer curiosity of the Chinese faculty and students, was something I will never forget.