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Trip to China an educational experience : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Trip to China an educational experience
Oswego school chief in delegation that visited schools in Beijing, Tianjin

by Lyle R. Rolfe


Oswego School District Superintendent Dr. Matthew Wendt recently had what he described as the trip of a lifetime, and he hopes to make it again some day, but with students and staff members from the Oswego School District.

Wendt was a guest of the The College Board along with several hundred other school and business officials from across the United States as they spent 10 days last month visiting schools in the Chinese provinces of Beijing and Tianjin to see how their schools operate and to talk to students and school officials.

Wendt was in a group of about 50 educators from the Midwest that traveled together as part of the Chinese Bridge For American Delegation, he said.

The district's cost to send Wendt on the trip was a $950 registration fee.

The district already offers Chinese and Mandarin language classes in some schools, and Wendt said the trip convinced him even more that Chinese is an important language because of China's continuing emergence as an economic and global power.

"Pick up various items in your home or business and see how many of them were made in China," he said, as he thumbed through brochures, photos and other souvenir items on a table in his office.

Wendt visited several Chinese high school classes and discovered everyone was speaking English. It is a required class starting in elementary school.

Classes at the high school level in China are more like our college classes, he noted.

All students wear uniforms similar to those worn in United States parochial and some public schools.

"They were eager to talk to us and they would like to see our students come there," Wendt said of the students and staff at the Chinese high schools.

Wendt said he and the other U.S. visitors received talks and lectures from Chinese high school and university leaders as part of their visit.

"One of the statistics I heard was that there are now more people in China learning how to speak English than there are English speaking people in the U.S.," he said, noting that this was one of many facts he learned that shows how much the world is shrinking.

"I was amazed at the technology kids and adults in China use-it looked very similar to what we use," he said.

Wendt admitted that because they did not visit areas outside these large cities, he was not sure whether life was much different in other parts of the country.

Just days before Wendt returned home, news stories here told how the U.S. schools are ranked far below those of foreign countries in academics. More than 90 percent of the students in the four Chinese high schools he visited will attend college. But he said he could not speak for high schools in other areas of the country away from the big cities.

He quickly became aware of an issue taking place between veteran and new Chinese teachers.

Wendt had an chance to interview six junior high and high school teachers. He said three of the teachers had more than 25 years of experience and three had less than five years of experience, including one that was in her first year of teaching, he said.

One big reason for the difference in academic ratings is that Chinese schools spend almost their entire class time teaching the core subjects. Students spend several hours each night out of class doing homework, something he said the students are not happy about.

There is almost no class time spent on sports, music, the arts and similar non-academic subjects, although Wendt said this could change over time, albeit very slowly.

"It was very clear to me there were different strategies at work," he said, referring to the difference in philosophy between the experienced and younger teachers.

"The experienced teachers were accustomed to classes of 40 to 50 students coming in, sitting down and listening to lectures during their entire 45 to 50 minute period. It was not uncommon for them to have four to five hours of homework every night," he said.

Wendt said he would encourage students and parents to Google China and homework.

Wendt said the Ministry of Education in China piloted a program that requires no homework in grades K-2, one hour each day of homework for grades three to five, and multiple hours of homework for the higher grades.

He said this was "putting tremendous pressure on the students, and they're beginning to resent it," he said.

Parental attitudes towards homework in the Oswego School District ranges from those who think all work should be done in school to those who say homework is good for students, he said.

Each Chinese instructor has only two classes a day, and spends the rest of each day preparing for the next day and working one-on-one with students who need more help. Their high schools are laid out with four to eight buildings, much like our junior college and universities. Primitive housing was provided for students who came from South China, he noted.

"When we asked the younger teachers what they were most concerned about, it was not how well their students were going to do on the traditional college entrance exam. They put far more emphasis on the whole child. They wanted to know how we taught personality or 'inner skills'-what we would call personal relationships, personal traits or interpersonal skills, to our students," he said.

"Experienced teachers placed heavy emphasis on homework, the college entrance exam, order, and structure," he said.

Wendt mentioned that even the Ministers of Education are interested in developing the whole child. But they're not going to shy away from being in the top 10 in math and science and the core areas. The college entrance exam is still very important, but they are looking for more ways to have a balance, he added.

Wendt explained that some of their tour guides had graduated 10 or so years before from the high schools they visited, adding that the guides were impressed with the movement toward the arts that occurred since their graduation.

The guides said that for the past 15 to 20 years, there has been heavy emphasis on the core subjects. But now there's more emphasis on creativity. This included art classes, ceramics, music, and other fine arts classes that the younger teachers felt were helping students become more creative.

"I learned China wants to learn more about how to teach students to develop more of what the American child has and that's the well-rounded, not just core education. It came out very clear that to the younger teachers and students, the American system that encouraged more fine arts, more activities and athletics--some of what we would call more down time and entertainment--is an up and growing part of their system," he said.

The older teachers were more apprehensive and there was not as much buy-in from them, he noted.

Wendt said he learned in a short time that the adage that it's all about order, math, science, engineering, technology, no fun, no games, no entertainment, was being replaced by this new wave of thinking.

The old and new teachers are teaching the same subjects in the same school-often across the hall from each other, "...but their class rooms felt different."

The tour guides who were in their 20s said they know their students are good at math and science, but not so good at communicating and having relationships with others, he said. They are now starting to realize the benefit of communicating with others.

Wendt realized during the first week of the trip that the U.S. is a well-respected country in the eyes of the Chinese.

"They have a great respect for the American education system," he said.

When he looked out the window of his hotel, it was like looking at any American city. McDonalds was on one corner KFC was right around the corner and Pizza Hut was not far away. Street merchants were selling their goods as well as food.

"A lot of selling and negotiating taking place on the city sidewalks. And there were quite a few beggars or what we would consider homeless," he added.

The group visited museums that could just as easily have been in Washington, D.C., he said.

But he said he felt some fear in Tiananmen Square where they were introduced to men in blue uniforms-police, and men in green uniforms-military.

"It was at that moment I knew we were not in the United States," he said.

He described the food as "not bad, just prepared differently". But when he arrived home he was ready for a steak and chocolate cake, saying he had eaten enough rice for a while.

Wendt visited some classrooms where students made presentations in front of the class.

"But it was easy for me to tell that this was not done on a regular basis. The more traditional classroom was to sit, listen, take notes," he said.

Wendt said he believes American culture is having an impact on the Chinese education system.

"When I asked one Chinese teacher what we could learn from them she was very polite, but said we need to put more emphasis on getting our kids to be more serious about mathematics, science and the core areas."

Wendt said, unlike the U.S., not every Chinese student who completes elementary school is accepted into high school, which can have some effect on the higher scores among foreign high school students. He also noted that if American students spent all day every day on core subjects and no school time on fine arts, entertainment and athletics, our scores would most likely be higher.

He noted that more than 90 percent of all students who finish high school enter college. The emphasis in the high schools he visited was to get into a great college, he said.

"As one of my closest colleagues once said, 'Our mission may be academic achievement, but our passion is still entertainment and athletics'. And today, we have even more than these things competing, such as volunteering and employment. These things all are valuable but eat away at the time that's available to students," he added.

He said his group had unique experiences because they spent most of their time visiting museums and universities in addition to the school systems.

"One of the things I took away was that there were far more similarities than differences between the two countries. I was surprised but I was encouraged by the reality that this is a country that now makes up 25 percent of the world's economy. China has come on so strong in the last two to three decades," he said, recalling that the U.S. did not have much of a public and open relationship with China when he was in high school.

He noted that New York City if placed in Beijing, would be the fourth largest city in the country. As he walked outside into a city of more than 30 million people, he witnessed traffic jams across 6 and 8 lanes.

"And here's what just amazed me at the time-Nissan, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, Chevrolet--at any time, based on the vehicles, the traffic, the honking and other noises, you would think you were in Chicago or New York," he said.

He said they are having such traffic problems in cities like Beijing that owners of car license plates ending in an odd number can drive on one day and even numbers on the next day.

Through questioning, he learned this was because of the huge population and because of the infrastructure. Although it has been improved in the last ten years, much more needs to be done, he added.

Wendt said he was quite surprised to see the number of 20, 30, and 40 story residential buildings. "The roads were lined with them between Beijing and Tanzanian. During the entire two-hour bus ride, out one window were farm fields and livestock and massive high-rises out the other-20 and 30 of them in a group," he said.

His hope is that this visit will lead to having sister schools like municipalities have sister cities, so students from each one can visit the other and learn from them. There are already some districts doing this, student exchange programs, he said .

One class in Oswego is already planning trip to China in 2015.

He would like to return to China next year with some of his staff. But until these visits take place, Wendt sees students in each country visiting the others classrooms via the internet to begin creating partnerships and learn the other country's language. The possibilities are endless, he said.

Wendt said the trip was a life-changing experience for him, but added he wants the results to become a life-changing experience for the district and its students.

He plans to present details and photos of his China trip to students, school board members, administrators, staff members and the public, so if you need a program for your civic club or other organization, contact Wendt.

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