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Point of View: Don’t be blinded by the big numbers

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ELT consultant Simon Cox stresses the importance of recognising the diversity and complexity in Chinese education

I’ve noticed that many articles about China begin with big numbers. Whatever the point of view of the writer – whether critical, admiring, or a bit of both – the go-to opening is often to start with scale.

It could be how many miles of high-speed train lines have been built across the country in the last 10 years, or how many millions of students are sitting gaokao (the college entrance examination) this June, or just how many clay warriors the first emperor of Qin had built for his tomb.

Of course, very often the numbers are true – it really is a big country with a lot of people.

I remember first arriving in Shanghai and being overawed by the countless rows of almost identical apartment blocks and the crowds of people pushing onto metro trains.

Many people, and certainly the Chinese government, actively encourage the ‘wow’ factor in the way China is represented both at home and abroad … a uniquely ancient culture with a relentless drive for rapid modernisation and growth, etc.

I know that China is not the only place that constructs a national identity in this way.

However, to my mind at least, it can seem rather disconcerting for a British person who spends a lot of time here: whilst creating a very optimistic view of China in some respects, it also reinforces certain stereotypes of the place that seem to have been lingering for a long time.

There is an idea of a mass of people who are very similar to each other, but very different from ‘us’. Perhaps this is leading to what Ben Chu calls ‘changst’ in his book, ‘Chinese Whispers’ – ‘a growing angst about China’ based on media representations.

In a special ‘China edition’ of the EL Gazette last year, there was an interview with the head of teacher training at one of China’s largest ELT organizations.

Jocelyn Wang very clearly presented some of the challenges faced in both teaching and learning English in China – challenges that I recognise from my daily working experience, as I talk to a lot of Chinese teachers (I won’t say how many – see my opening paragraph).

What struck me most was how often she described the views of ‘the Chinese learner’ and ‘the Chinese way of learning’ as a single shared point of view.

This troubled me on two counts. Firstly, because it seems to give permission to some to make the lazy step from ‘we do this…’ to ‘they do that…’, but also because that simplistic description of Chinese teaching and learning doesn’t tally with my own experience of the diversity I encounter every day.

I know we often crave simple answers to complex questions, but often simple solutions don’t serve us well. When my Chinese friends ask me for an easy explanation for ‘Brexit’, my attempts quickly become convoluted and contradictory – I certainly can’t find a simple ‘British people think …’ answer!

I’m not saying that there aren’t many Chinese teachers and learners who find ‘imported’ ideas of teaching difficult, but I really think it’s important to balance things and say that there are also many people who are passionate about exploring new educational possibilities.

Over the last 20 years, Hu Guangwei has written frequently about ELT in China and how pedagogical practices have developed. He points out that even ‘the Chinese way’ (to use Jocelyn’s description), which can be seen as a localised mix of grammar-translation and audio-lingualism, was probably a ‘product of both native and foreign practices’ right from its nineteenth-century beginnings.

It seems that over time, as complex ideas evolve, it’s easy to forget their ‘messy’ origins. Another example of this can be found in Julia Lovell’s book The Great Wall, which explores how Chinese people’s opinions of ‘the wall(s)’ have changed over many years – and often, surprisingly, how this may be at least partly as a result of the influence of the views of foreigners.

Not long ago, I was in a small town in the hills of the far west of China in Sichuan province – a great place if you enjoy spicy hot pot and panda spotting.

A group of teachers told me that the greatest challenge they face is that their students lack motivation to study English and that proficiency levels are very low.

They said that students are often ‘naughty’ because of demotivation – especially because there is a perception that learning English isn’t really useful for their day-to-day lives.

Even if they work hard to achieve high scores in the college entrance exam, the competition against students from big cities often mean that ‘small town’ candidates don’t get the plum spots they and their extremely demanding parents dream of.

Recently, I went to Pudong New District in Shanghai, which is full of Costa coffee shops and skyscrapers. I visited a high school affiliated to a famous local university, that sits between two high-technology companies – Lenovo and Huawei – which I’d never heard of five years ago but I’d guess almost everyone in the world recognises their names now.

The teachers told me that the greatest challenge they face is that the students are very highly motivated and have very high levels of proficiency in English.

However, the students are often ‘naughty’ because the English classes are not really challenging enough.

The teachers are worried that their own levels of English is not keeping up with their students. The students and their demanding parents are worried that they need to compete against young people from all over the world to gain places in the elite universities they dream of.

These are just two recent examples I’ve seen of the variety of experiences sitting side-by-side in Chinese education and I can’t see an easy way to reduce this diversity to a tidy ‘we’ or ‘us’. For me, the only ‘we’ that has any useful place in the discussion of developing ELT in China is the ‘we’ in the sentence I find myself using more frequently than any other… ‘Don’t worry. We’ll try to work it out together!’

Simon Cox is a freelance teacher trainer and consultant for ELT, and divides his time between China and the UK.