Sages and guides

Sages and guides
Changsha, China

Changsha, China

In 976 A.D., Zhang Shi, and Zhu Xi, two leaders of ancient Chinese learning, embarked on a journey up Yuelu Mountain together. When they arrived at the top, they built a platform which they named “Hexi,” which translates as “the splendor of sunrise.” The platform became the foundation for Yuelu Academy, one of four ancient academies of higher learning in China. It accepted students throughout the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, eventually becoming Hunan University in 1926.

So, on a warm October Saturday, Aaron, Claudia, and I joined thousands of other travellers intent on retracing the footsteps of those ancient academics, to explore the rebuilt grounds and buildings of Yuelu Academy for ourselves. Although hardly a mountain by Canadian standards, it was a healthy trek uphill, its way now lined by restaurants, stores, and trinket booths.

Once we reached the hilltop, the crowds dispersed a little, and we enjoyed the cool, quiet greenery and ponds that surrounded the academy buildings. Happily, the information signs were written in Chinese and English so I could read them for myself. Claudia supplemented my learning by listening in on the Chinese tour guide commentaries, and translating them for me when the group moved on.

Although I learned about many aspects of Yuelu Academy’s history and functions, the lecture hall fascinated me the most. The lecturers would sit on a raised platform. One would write on a board behind their chairs while the other one talked. The students, or disciples as the information boards called them, stood up in the lecture hall, absorbing the words of their teachers. We couldn’t find out how long the lectures lasted, but I’m inclined to think the concept “mini-lesson” hadn’t been invented yet.

One of the reasons that Walter and I were invited to deliver the Teaching in English program here in Changsha was to introduce the professors to alternatives to the lecture method. The vice-president of our inviting university emphasized that the direct transmission of information, intended to be memorized by students in order to pass a test, was not helping China to develop creative thinkers or problem solvers. So, in my classroom, I’ve designed as many activities as possible to help the professors experience some alternatives to the downloads of information via lectures.

So far, they’ve participated in a panel discussion on motivation and engagement in higher education, which they delivered while seated at the front of the room. Many of them said that this was a group work option they hadn’t considered offering to their students.

We also played a learning game called Four Corners to help them consider the advantages and disadvantages of various learning activities. In groups, they walked around the four corners of the classroom and added a pro and a con to each posted sheet, without duplicating what the group ahead of them had said. To add some fun to the game, I said that the last group to add a new comment would “win” that sheet.

They also participated in a “sketch to stretch” activity. I asked the professors to choose one sentence from an eight sentence paragraph that described a theory of how students learn. They sketched their understanding of the words, and I posted the drawings in an “art gallery.” When the gallery opened, they could view all the sketches and ask each other how to interpret the drawings.

Then, one day, a professor asked me two thought-provoking questions. “What is the purpose of student-centred activities? And what is my role as an instructor in a student-centred classroom?”

My visit to Yuelu Academy gave me a different lens through which to consider the question’s answer. The activities I had been asking the professors to consider trying with their students pushed against the cultural mass of more than 1000 years of two Chinese higher education traditions: the teacher as lecturer, and the teacher as the sole expert in the classroom. Were my Western ideas about how student-centred learning occurred too tall an order for the professors to enact when they returned to their universities?

And so we discussed the question from a variety of perspectives over many days. I told them about my visit to Yuelu Academy and what I had learned there. One of the professors said that he too had visited the site: “I like this place very much. It is about Chinese higher education,” But a GIS instructor reminded his colleague that Yuelu tell the story of traditional Chinese higher education, rather than its present state. We discussed the pros and cons of both the lecture method, and interactive methods. Which was better suited to produce the innovative, thoughtful problem-solvers that China needs, now and in the future?

I introduced the professors to the concept of the teacher becoming the “guide on the side” in a student-centred classroom, which meant they would give up at least some of their role as “the sage on the stage.” I also explained that they would be very busy in their new role, setting up a learning environment for the students: choosing engaging materials, arranging discussion groups and other instructional activities to get students thinking, and facilitating these activities rather than lecturing.

The professors considered all these ideas, debated them, tried to figure out how and if to implement them in their daily practice. Ultimately, this decision will be their responsibility. But from what I have heard and understood of their thinking, I believe that there are some Chinese students who will be experiencing some exciting new learning opportunities in the weeks and months to come.


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