The digitization and current state of Chinese classrooms

I went to a talk today hosted by the SFCCC (Culture Center of Taipei Economic office) today about the state of teaching Chinese today, the usage of digital devices in the classroom, and how parents can help their children learn Chinese.

The speaker is a teacher teaching high school Chinese.  It seems that her viewpoint is from one of watching children who are learning Chinese in Saturday Chinese school or high school level.  Basically children who are not necessarily in immersion programs, bilingual programs, or somehow going to school daily to learn Chinese.

Though this is not where I am coming from, I still found the talk to be interesting and had some take away points.

She started by talking about the rise of Chinese language education in the US, in terms of government focus and investment, which arose after September 11.  There was a realization that learning a foreign language is a good thing.  This lead to the establishment of StarTalk program, which trained teachers and also conducted language summer camps.  Then they went down a level and established the AP Chinese test to entice students to learn Chinese.  Supposedly after that they realized learning a language from 9th grade on was still not enough; since Chinese is a hard language to learn.  Thus the establishment of immersion schools and children learning Chinese from an early age.

She talked a bit about common core and AP Chinese tests.  This was a revelation #1 for me.  The emphasize on these tests is the ability to communicate (hence listening and speaking skills very important), and the breadth of knowledge in Chinese (thus not so important to learn all about culture, which we heritage learners like to emphasize) such as global issues, science and technology, etc.  She noted that Chinese schools have been so concerned with the culture part but really they’re not too important or relevant to the children here.  It’s not that we shouldn’t learn them, but there are other things the children should know how to talk about other than the lady on the moon or the origin of the Autumn Festival.  And she also talked about how students who are learning Chinese as a second language (e.g., no native speaker parents) sometimes do better than the students who have native speaking families because of what they’re taught in the classroom.  That parents who send their children to Chinese school have too low of a threshold, often for them attending Saturday Chinese school is enough.  She gave an example of a father writing homework for his son.  But we really, as parents, should ask for more than that from our Chinese school.

Her take away point here was that the Chinese classroom needs to emphasize speaking skills.   She described the AP test and gave an example of a sample question, where the tester is given a scenario and needs to listen to some multiple choices on what a proper response would be.  She noted that in textbooks there are often yes and no answers but native speakers don’t speak that way.  In the slide she showed, a “corn” person says to a “popped corn” person, “Are you hot?”  And given the illustration of the “popped corn” doesn’t look too happy with the question and his answer wouldn’t just be yes or no, but rather maybe something sarcastic like “You think?”

The speaker spent a better part of the talk also talking about how classrooms are taught now a days.  In the traditional Chinese classroom, you’ve got a lecturer.   In the last 20 years, we have moved on to a more group method of teaching.  And she says that in the last few years, we’re starting to move to a “self-learning” method of learning.  Where coursework is individualized with the help of technology.  This was not-quite revelation #2.  I say not quite because really, this is the Montessori way of teaching: auto-education.  This also allows the students to practice their speaking skills because they’re now not waiting for 1/28, 1/30th of a teacher’s time to speak to the teacher.  They can practice with each other instead.

She showed us pictures of her high school classroom.  There is a picture of students all sitting in front of laptops.  But they’re not necessarily all doing the same thing.  For example, maybe she has given the assignment of practicing writing.  You could have some students using the laptop to type, some using it to practice hand writing digitally, and others not wanting to use the laptop at all.  The student chooses how they want to utilize the tools, and the teacher is the guide.  She joked that she spends most of her time taking pictures while the students work.   There were lots and lots of photos of students engaged in fun learning activities (games), that really helped them do group work to practice their listening and speaking skills.

Another thing she mentioned was how technology is changing what we need to learn.  Revelation #3 was the non-importance of learning to write, proper stroke order, etc.  Of course these are all good things to learn if you have time.  But remembering where she’s coming from (AP students learning Chinese), does it really matter in the long run when the computer can finish your typing for you.  For all we know in 5 years, we can just dictate and the computer will type for us.

Though I work in technology and I know this to be true, this was really hard for me to accept when I imagine what the classroom curriculum should look like.  I obviously am still most comfortable with the way I was taught Chinese, which involved lots of repetitive writing, memorization, etc.  This relates to revelation #4, which is that what we teach should be relevant to the students.  Again, all familiar ideas to the Montessori teacher.  It is important to teach things relevant to students because they can learn better.  She gave an example of textbooks always having sample conversations about “What sport do you like to do?”  And she questions why we need to do that.  A good teacher will know the goal isn’t to learn all 20 vocab words related to sports at the end of the class.  But rather, the goal is for the student to be answer the question (again the emphasis on language used as a communication tool).  So every student could have a different answer and learn different vocab, but it’s all good.

Combine the idea of auto education, individualized learning, emphasize on speaking and listening, she talked about how the teacher is the guide who doesn’t necessarily have all the answers but rather enables students to know how to find answers (very Montessori idea), with the help of technology.  Students can be given assignments and know how to google or use an electronic dictionary for words they do not know.  They can use it to practice listening, etc.  She talked about how she doesn’t need to worry when she leaves the classroom to go on trips because the students all know what they need to do, and all of those learning are done without her to begin with.

I’m going on and on but I’m not sure I’ve got the gist of everything she said.  The slides are on the web anyway.  Her ideas were not all new too me, except the part about really emphasize speaking and not worrying about stroke order, writing etc.

Her students are different from my kids so I’m not sure how much I should let it apply to our curriculum.  I did really enjoy looking at learning chinese through the lens of Saturday Chinese school, after school programs, or just starting in high school.  It is not normally the crowd of parents I talk to, who have much higher standards of Chinese for their kids and do require that they speak at home or send their kids to immersion school.

Oh, one thing she said was that AP Chinese level is comparable to 2nd to 3rd grade Chinese level in Taiwan, other than concept.  Because obviously this is high school/college level, and the test will have vocabs and concepts that are older and a real 3rd grader wouldn’t understand it.

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