One order of Changsha-style motivation, please

One order of Changsha-style motivation, please
Changsha, China

Changsha, China


Yesterday, I told my students that today, I would not be introducing much new information. It is the last day of our 13.5 hour course on how to motivate and engage students in higher education. “We’ve talked about so many things already,” I said, “so now it’s time to take a break and review what we’ve learned.”

The students’ faces visibly relax, and one near the front smiles broadly and thanks me. We’ve all been teaching and learning this week, without much time to reflect on what we’ve discovered. I’m looking forward to a less intense day as much as they are.

On Monday (wow, was that only 4 days ago?), two of our computing science graduate student guides met my teaching partner Walter and me in the hotel lobby for our first walk to the university. They handed us large, laminated identification cards on lanyards, which we’re required to wear whenever we’re on campus. Then, we walked out into the sizzling Changsha morning, joining the frantic, crowded rush of people and traffic on their way to work and school. It’s only about a 15 minute walk to the university, and we think we could easily do it on our own. But we’ve been told our grad student guides will help us to cross the street safely, since the pedestrian walk lights mean nothing to the scooter traffic, and even to some of the cars and buses.

Once we pass by the white-gloved guard at the gate, whose eyes shift momentarily towards us and then straight forward, the quiet campus spreads out ahead of us. Unlike a Canadian university, there are surprisingly few students walking around. Everyone attends classes at the same time, and there are no restaurants, shops, or lounges inside the gates to provide any distraction.

Our 25 students are already in the classroom when we step through the door. We’re shocked when they greet our arrival with enthusiastic applause! We recover enough to smile and raise our hands to say hello, before sitting down to hear a welcome address from Yue, our host university liaison professor, and Zhang, the former head of the computing science department, now the university vice-president. Walter introduces the Teaching in English program, and we both introduce ourselves. Then, it’s the students’ turn to speak.

This is the moment Walter and I have been waiting for. If the students’ English is not strong enough to allow them to cope with our courses’ abstract concepts and their practical application, we will have to seriously rethink the content and approaches we planned to use.

One man loses no time coming to the front of the room. “Welcome, my fellow students, to Changsha, where the weather is hot, and the food is hotter!” Everyone laughs, and I think, hmmm….that was a pretty sophisticated sentence construction for someone who speaks English as a second language. The next man is also highly articulate, and I catch a whiff of British poshness in his vowel pronunciation. When I ask where he learned his English, he says, “At my university. But I also listened to the BBC News to learn more.”

One by one, everyone introduces themselves. Although there is a range of English speaking skill- the man who stands up last admits he has not spoken English for 10 years – their abilities are far higher than we expected. I’m now looking forward to my first afternoon session with the students so I can hear more.

I start the class by introducing the concept of remembering our own motivations for becoming engaged with our subject areas, so that we can share them directly or indirectly with our students. I draw a timeline of my involvement with education – teaching my dolls at age 4, my parents’ continual interest and encouragement, my older sister’s suggestion that I go on to graduate school, my passion for always learning more. The room is silent with their intense listening. Then they go to work on their own timelines.

As each person shares a story, I become more and more intrigued with their motivation for pursuing their subject area and a teaching career. One woman speaks of her concern for the lack of access to clean water in rural China, and her desire to inspire her students to address that situation. Another talks about how few women were involved in the engineering field when she started her career, and how she wants to make improvements to her field generally. One of the two English teachers in the group says she is following in the footsteps of 4 generations of teachers in her family. A mathematician says he wants his students to see the beauty of mathematics. There are lots of stories of friends, siblings, parents, teachers, and supervisors offering encouragement and opportunities. Several people talk of feeling “called” to their disciplines and to teaching. “I didn’t choose my subject area,” says an engineer. “It chose me.”

Later in the week, we connect over eye-rolling stories of some Canadian and Chinese university students’ lack of motivation. They don’t want to learn theory. They complain that courses are useless. They ask ‘What does this have to do with getting a job?’ They don’t want to apply themselves to learning challenging concepts. I talk to my teaching colleagues about ‘naming the elephant in the room’ on the first day of class by discussing what they’ve heard students say about their courses and addressing these negative attitudes in positive ways.

What a delightful range of ideas they have for engaging their students. One computer technologist says she will talk with her students about how the course she teaches has helped in her own career. Another says she has a “secret” for how to learn difficult concepts that she will share during the course. A computer security instructor, who was the last to speak on the first day, gives an infomercial-style “come on” for his course. “Don’t you all use the Internet? Do you know that people can spy on you? Do you want to know how they do that, and how to stop them? That is what we will learn in my course.”

As you can see, these are not students who are having much difficulty with learning and applying abstract concepts. I toss out most of the content I planned for them back in Canada, and work every morning and evening on more engaging, challenging lessons. I’m a little surprised to discover that, in spite of the long hours of planning, I don’t feel tired. My students’ motivation and engagement is fuelling mine. And n the world of teaching and learning, it just doesn’t get much better than that.


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