From where I sit - Keen learners, but tough crowds

January 6, 2011

All teachers have faced hard crowds; bored, tired, restless students who would clearly prefer to be just about anywhere else than in your classroom.

One of my toughest sells was a late Friday afternoon session with a dozen insurance company executives. The topic: improving corporate communications.

I doubt body language has ever been as expressive or verbal communication as reluctant. They slumped, and they leaned on their hands, and they stared at their Rolexes. They imagined being where they usually were at four o'clock on a Friday afternoon in Cape Town: limbering up on the first tee, a gentle breeze blowing off the ocean, a bit of banter with their mates. Instead, there was me.

Now that I'm teaching in China, facing hard crowds is the core business. Students are generally deeply resistant to voicing their opinions or thoughts in public. When you break classes into groups and ask them to report back on a task, 10 minutes of lively intergroup discussion and debate follows. But when you ask someone to tell the class what the group has been discussing, a sudden profound silence descends.

This reluctance has nothing to do with intelligence or the lack of preparation, although I would expect that few teachers can boast regular classes brimming with students who have all completed their reading assignments. Such preparedness does exist, of course: I have seen it in the profoundly competitive interactions of the Harvard Business School and in the intense one-on-one engagements of the Oxford tutorial system. But in most educational interactions, the levels of preparedness are uneven at best.

Chinese students' reluctance is founded on several facets of their experience and culture. In part, students' anxiety not to lose face in front of their peers is a key dimension. This is an important social and cultural consideration in any interaction in China. Almost all of the students are being taught in English and are expected to communicate in it - and it is their second or possibly third language. This doesn't exactly lend itself to fluent, confident discussion.

The Chinese school system is also profoundly regulated, and rote learning, militaristic marching, political instruction, nationalism and discipline are core principles of the pedagogy. By the time students reach university, and particularly a university such as the University of Nottingham Ningbo that is built around English values and methods, it requires a large leap of faith and confidence for them to break the shackles, put up their hands in class or express a firm opinion verbally or in writing.

University lecturers in China have come up with a range of innovative ways of coaxing their students to engage. One colleague found, almost by accident, that singing can be a brilliant teaching tool in this deeply musical part of the world. Song soon became a frequent and much enjoyed channel for learning in her class, and the approach was quickly adopted by other teachers.

China certainly has its challenges. And while students exhibit a certain public reticence, innovation, dedication and sheer love of learning are the hallmark of this generation of educated Chinese youth. It's not hard to see why we are already living in the Chinese century.

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