Administrators Get an Inside Look at China's Education System

30 July 2014

Great WallWith the goal of examining the similarities and differences between the Chinese and US school systems, a group of 22 educators embarked on a special Primary Source Education Delegation to China this month that included stops in Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai. "We had a great group of educational leaders with a mix of ages, administrative roles, and travel experience," said delegation co-leader Ruth Gilbert-Whitner, Superintendent of Whitman-Hanson Regional School District. "Everyone came together quickly and appreciated having the opportunity to support and learn from one another." Along with visits to the iconic sites both ancient and modern, the group had invaluable opportunities to meet with Chinese teachers and administrators, visit Chinese families in their homes, and experience China's school system firsthand.

Touring Beijing's #4 High School, a nationally ranked key school, gave the group a taste of an elite secondary school, where students are on track to attend high-level universities both in China and the US. Interestingly, feng shui guidelines influence the building of the hexagon-shaped classrooms, making them more conducive to learning. In stark contrast, the group visited the Dandelion School, the first middle school in Beijing for the children of migrant workers, where they observed English summer enrichment camps in session. But the highlight was being graciously welcomed into the homes of several of these students. "Getting to meet families and see how they live was a rich and rewarding experience for the group," said Gilbert-Whitner. "It's the kind of experience you get with a Primary Source tour. It changes how you view the world."

It was personal connections like these that really made the trip special for the educators. Delegation academic leader Shiping Zheng, Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University, facilitated a panel discussion at the Foreign Ministry on global education and the challenges of cultural exchanges. During the group's travels, he shared his own experiences of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. "It gave the group a firsthand perspective of life and education in China during a very different time in its recent past," said Gilbert-Whitner.

Calligraphy DemonstrationLeaving Beijing for Xi'an was a change of pace for the group. "Because it sits at the end of the Silk Road, Xi'an has retained key remnants of the former city," said Gilbert-Whitner, "It gives you a real sense of the history of China." Excursions included visiting the site of the Terracotta Warriors, seeing the ancient city wall, and experiencing the bustling Muslim Market. Adding to that history was an array of cultural and educational activities, including a visit to a calligraphy school, an afternoon of Chinese brush painting, and a dumpling dinner discussion with a group of Chinese teachers of English, all of whom had taught in the US. "They were able to compare their experiences since returning to China," said Gilbert-Whitner. "They had such a unique perspective on their own teaching."

Participants also visited the rural Pang Liu Village School outside of Xi'an, where thanks to Primary Source connections and Program Director (and delegation leader) Peter Gilmartin's relationship building, the group was treated to a tour of the village, library, and school, and then welcomed into the home of a local family. "Going behind the scenes to see real life situations is so important for a group of educators," said Gilbert-Whitner. "The Primary Source connections, coupled with EF's travel expertise, made the entire experience that much more special."

Wrapping up their professional delegation in Shanghai, participants met with a group of representatives from the Shanghai Education Department. Thanks to Chen Yonglong, Former Ambassador to Israel and Secretary General of CUSEF*, who was instrumental in arranging the visit, the group learned how they’ve worked to bridge the achievement gap. The conversation provided much food for thought and prompted a range of questions from class size and curriculum development, to teacher planning and the teacher prep program required to become an educator in China. It was a thought-provoking panel discussion that paired nicely with trips to the Shanghai Museum, the Bund, the Yu Yuan Gardens, and an evening Huangpu River cruise.

In a quintessential example of the trip being, as one participant called it, "familiar and strange at the same time," the group refueled at a Dunkin' Donuts in the Xi'an airport, on their way to Shanghai. In the end, the experiences of their 10-day trip resulted in much to process. For this reason, they have plans to get together in October to discuss the impact the trip had on their lives, their schools and districts, and their communities. "Having collaborated on the trip, we are excited to regroup in the fall and hear how each has brought this amazing study tour experience back to our districts," said Gilbert-Whitner.






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