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Category Archives: china

By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau, China

This is a fascinating study and so much rings true that I go along with all that I’ve managed to read so far.

On the Chinese side there is the view of education as the ingesting of information and lack of emphasis on the synthesis of information to create and advance. There is the xenophobia that assists the belief that one can teach a neutral English that allows learners to absorb information but not evaluate any of the values and attitudes associated with that information. There is the view of teaching as a job that is done between certain times with little thought of being more than a figurehead in front of the class and there is the inability of many teachers, in spite of official statements of aims, to move beyond the stage of reading the textbook to their students – pure information transmission that makes no attempt to involve learners and, when students already have the textbook, makes no attempt to come to terms with a new reality. This isn’t a problem of Chinese teachers alone; I’ve come across plenty of Western presenters at conferences who read from the handouts they have given their audience while displaying the same words with Powerpoint on the screen behind them. But experience in Chinese schools and colleges lead me to believe that “teacher holds the book” is a very common scene in the classroom.

The article also brings to the fore the inability of the Chinese administration to evaluate teaching except in terms that have little to do with learning and more to do with time keeping. This causes problems with foreign teachers especially because they tend to fall outside the criteria used by administrators to judge teachers and there is in consequence a bewilderment among the Chinese when it turns out that inadequate teachers have been employed but the administration is unsure even how to judge their inadequacy. The reaction described in the article is typically xenophobic – a shrug of the shoulders followed by “well, they aren’t Chinese”.

I read the potted descriptions of some foreign teachers. I may have missed some but of those I read none had much in the way of TEFL qualifications or TEFL experience. The teachers described had various degrees of enthusiasm for their work and various amounts of previous classroom experience but, in the absence of any real syllabus or teaching aims, they lacked the knowledge to design and implement effective courses. I’d say the university desperately needed experienced TEFL teachers with post graduate qualifications both theoretical and practical. A team with a few TEFL MAs and DELTAS coupled with at least 10 years solid TEFL experience for each member might be able to put togetehr an effective program, though the administration might well then swipe it aside as the administration would be unable to comprehend such a program.

I will read the whole thing more carefully because I want to find signs for hope for the future. Many of the views and attitudes quoted in the article were identical to those expressed by Chinese emperors, diplomats and officials over the last three or four centuries and I believe it is these attitudes that changed China from a from an innovative civilisation with a technology well in advance of the West, a country that came within a whisker of starting an industrial revolution centuries before Britain and Europe, into a country where thinking and change are seen as risky occupations. There must be a way forward but so often I see Chinese in authority struggling to keep the status quo and effectively managing to turn the future into the past.

The ‘home page’ for the complete text can be found at:


Examinations are approached as if the pupils were enemies who must be attacked by surprise. All this discourages young people from energetically taking charge of their own moral, intellectual and physical education”. Mao was also greatly concerned by the health of school pupils. Immediately after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, he wrote twice to the Minister of Education, Ma Xulun, pressing for the schools to be given the following instructions: ‘Health first, studies second’. He returned to that theme on many occasions: ‘We must ensure that young people are in good health, study well and work hard’. A balance must be struck between studies on the one hand, and, on the other hand, relaxation, rest and sleep.

>By Steven McMath – Guangzhou, China

“I live in a harmonious family…”

Apparently Chinese people actually say this in Chinese. I suppose it is similar to China’s harmonious society. A Chinese friend expressed surprised that it wasn’t good English. I suppose we just like to call a spade a spade more often.

“My home town is very beautiful, is very famous and the food is delicious… “

“Today I want to talk about my washing machine…”

Again, Chinese people actually say these things in Chinese, except the washing machine bit which came from an IELTS book co-written by an New Oriental Chinese English teacher and a Chinese ‘genius’ who went to Oxford. The book was full of grammar mistakes as well. It took me about 2 years to get the department to stop selling it to the students.

Surprisingly students do tell me that Guangzhou is beautiful. I tell them, as much as I like Guangzhou, please look out the window for a moment. They laugh. Luckily Guangzhou people have a sense of humour and can laugh at themselves which is one reason why I like Guangzhou.

I’m asking a Chinese friend for some insights as I write this. Apparently everyone has been singing songs about how beautiful and famous their hometown is since they were small children. My Chinese friend tells me that they talk about delicious food because their lives are boring so they focus on the food. I think he is probably
over intellectualising. I think they are just obsessed with food.

One girl told me once that her home town was famous because of bamboo. Apparently Zhongshan is famous because Bruce lee came from there. Except that he didn’t and having personally been interested in martial arts for years, I had never heard of that before.

I find I have no need to make fun of the expressions. They want to do well in the IELTS exam and I want to help them do so, so we have a real goal congruence. I did make fun of the girl who said her hometown was famous because of Bamboo though. I couldn’t help myself. I do sometimes make fun of what they say but only for a laugh.

“My hometown is located approximately 173.5 km from the centre of Guangzhou. It has a population of 376,472 people. And a dog. It is very beautiful. It is very famous. The food is delicious. Welcome to my hometown.” It gets a laugh.

The latest one that has cropped up in the last year in Guangzhou is “I come from a nuclear family”. When was the last time you heard a native speaker say that?

>By Don YD Chen – Liuzhou, Guangxi, China

I have been working with foreign teachers working in Chinese institutions for many years and have alway been in good terms with them. I, as a Chinese teacher of English, fully understand their situations in this vast land, where the culture is so diverse that one can hardly avoid continuous shocks such culture shocks, food shocks or shocks of whatever one can imagine, in the first few months (or a year). Worse, there are students whose enthusiasm shrinks soon after they discover that foreign teachers are not good at teaching them ‘to pass exams’.

>By Leslie Sirag/R.L.”Seth” Watkins – Olympia, WA, USA

The first and most important thing we learned about China in our first year of teaching there is that everything we thought we knew was wrong. I don’t think anything can really prepare you–the best you can do is let go of assumptions and expectations and just go with the flow, even when it feels as though you should swim against the current!

>Hong Xiu Ping, Gateway Language Village, Zhuhai, China

I have often heard comments from Chinese teachers that foreigners do not know how to teach English. They are hired by many schools just for the face value. Even some Russians are teaching English in a private school in Shenzhen because they look western. Parents are paying top dollars sending their kids to this kind of school and they want western looking teachers to teach their kids. Asian looking teachers, whether native speakers or experienced Chinese teachers are often treated as second class teachers. This is not healthy but it happens often.

We have a very mixed team. We have Chinese teachers from China as well as from Hong Kong, USA. We also have a few teachers from India. One of the most popular teacher we have is from India. We use Chinese teachers to teach beginner students and we use native speakers to teach elementary and above. Yes, native speakers without qualifications and esl experiences are used as teaching assistants to act as conversation partners for students. Once they gain enough experience, they can be promoted to teacher positions.

As we only admit adults or youth above 16 years old, we normally do not need to deal with some ignorant and prejudiced parents who demand for western looking teachers with American accent or British accent. Students are not allowed to choose their teachers in our school. They are assigned to the class according to their level.

Personally, I believe native speakers are indispensable for language study. To be fluent and proficient, one needs to learn many things from native speakers, not just vocabulary and grammar. No matter how experienced they are, non native language teachers can not provide all the language elements the students need. A good native English teacher is one who can teach different level students, even the very beginner

>By Zhou Zheng Li, China

Regarding “Student Centred Learning”, many people still argue whether this concept can really be applied to teaching large classes in China.

In the past, teachers lectured for the whole period with little time left for students to discuss or raise questions. Can it be called “indoctrination” in English? It’s so-called “Teacher Centred Learning”. The teacher teaches whatever he wants to teach, which can be justified as the teacher has a textbook to finish and some specific goals to achieve.

Compared with western students, Chinese students are more bookworms or memorizing machines than creative thinkers. Many educators contribute all this to improper teaching method.

To produce more creative thinkers, not just learning machines, they advocate teachers should adopt “Student Centred Learning” methods — encourage student participation in class activities, even let students teach themselves. This method emphasizes that the students are performers and the teacher is, in some ways, a director, another a helper, or a listener, but seldom a lecturer. Some even go to the extreme to say that students are guests, “guests are god”, teachers should serve them as actresses serve guests.

All this sounds reasonable. But in reality, all too often, those teachers or schools that adopt this teaching methodology will find they are in a Catch-22 situation: Students are wild and out of control in class; teachers can not finish their syllabus; most students will fail their examinations; parents are disappointed; teachers are frustrated.

I don’t know why such a well-intended method should go wrong. Maybe China is different from western countries, culturally and historically. We cannot simply copy others.

One artist once said: Learn from me, you will prosper. Copy me, you will die. How true!

>By Annie Zhao, University of Bath, England

Student-centred learning has some difficulty making headways in China. First, it is about choices. The students are not enable to make choice about what they need to or want to learn.

Many Chinese teachers teach to textbooks because it is the “given” or mandated material to deliver. They have a course to run. Many teachers feel they don’t have time to stay for discussion or for an individual kid to express something clearly.

When the teacher asks a question, the time the kid is allowed to answer it is to say “yes” or “no” when they are preparing for examinations. However, foreign teachers seem to be allowed for more space for choices, as they are not accountable for examination scores directly, and they are supposed to bring in diversity.

Second, the class size and discipline are problematic to handle in group works and its evaluation. Student-centred teaching is more demanding to teachers. Whole-class transmission is the main experience many Chinese teachers have had. They need professional training for the skills to facilitate student-centred learning.

>By Simon Wang

For most language teachers, the most frustrating experience is that you try so hard to get your students to speak in class yet they remain so (a)pathetic.

I am always amazed by the success of commercial tutorial schools in motivating their students. The same college students who were so passive in my classrooms got very energetic in the classroom of New Oriental and Crazy English. Maybe that explains why teachers there get higher pay?!

Nevertheless, I believe that it is not what you teach but how you teach it that makes a difference. And for expatriate teachers, it seems that we can probably put the exam issues aside and develop our own approaches to engage the students, for the FL departments seldom involved foreign teachers in the test-prep ordeal.

Here are a few things about teaching English majors I would like to share:

1) The Chinese curriculum for English majors is standardized and test-oriented. Try to promote diversity and individuality in your course.

2) Chinese students lack individual attention from their teachers because the student-faculty ratio is astoundingly high. So, if possible, eat lunches with your students and try to learn what they really need from you. I made the mistake that I tried to offer what I thought was best for my students but it turned out that they did not need it.

3) Career education: All English majors share a so-called “English-only course” in that the only thing they learn in their undergraduate program is English. It is possible that students from other departments can also speak English very well PLUS they have their own specialty. So one thing you can do is to help your students develop transferrable skills useful in many career settings and broaden their horizon beyond the four skills.

4) Part-time jobs for English majors: Traditionally, English majors take part-time jobs to help translate documents or interpret orally. Your course might help the students to explore alternative opportunities — for example, helping foreigners to set up a corporation in China. Depending on your previous career, you can also share your own perspective with your students.

5) TIC and information gap: Remember the phrase “TIC — This Is China?” Once some other teachers and I did a lecture on “Presenting China to foreigners in English”. As a newcomer to China, you might encourage your students to talk about different aspects in China and you can also trade your perspectives on things with them. Please do NOT shy away from controversial issues such as governmental policy and political reforms. If you, as a foreign teacher, do not offer fresh ideas to Chinese students, who will?

6) Finally, people do not remember much. An American professor of mine told me, he only cared about what his students remembered ten years after taking his course. It all goes back to the old “give a fish or teach how to fish” cliche. Students can always practice their English in their dormitory if they see the need. As a foreign teacher, try to offer something local teachers cannot. And a good language teacher is always, first of all, a good teacher.