America’s Teacher of the Year Comes to China

In August, National Teacher of the Year Michelle Shearer came to China to study the country’s education system and meet with education experts. During her week-long trip sponsored by People to People Ambassador Programs, she visited schools in Beijing and Xi’an. Here she is talking about her trip:

In the past few years, American education has been facing something of an existential crisis. The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) had the U.S. coming in at 14th, 30th, and 23rd in reading, math, and science, respectively, while Shanghai took first in all three categories. Given, it’s a little unfair to compare a city to a country but add to this China’s economic rise and the debate over Tiger Mothers and people can’t help asking the question: is America falling behind China in education?

But just as Americans are admiring the results of the Chinese educational system, the Chinese are admiring the result of America’s. Shearer recounts:

When I met with 12 chemistry teachers at Ba Yi High School in Beijing, “creativity” was the key word as they asked me many questions: How do you creatively teach the “theoretical” aspects of chemistry? How do you assess student creativity? What creative homework assignments do you give beyond question-and-answer exercises? If you allow students to engage in creative, open-ended experiments, how can you be sure to cover the curriculum so that students will pass their exams?

It turns out that when it comes to education, each country has something to learn from the other. Every teacher knows that education is incredibly complex and requires a multifaceted approach. The questions we really should be asking are, “Has China’s test-based educational system allowed Chinese students to compete more effectively in our global society?” and “Is America’s emphasis on the amorphous virtue of ‘creativity’ hurting the development of students’ fundamental skills?”

Though it’s clear that American students need to brush up on basic subjects, Shearer cautions American educators from learning the wrong lesson:

We envy China’s high test scores and are determined for U.S. students to measure up. Let’s assume we achieve that goal: Where will we be? Exactly where the Chinese are now, realizing that paper-and-pencil testing alone does not prepare students to succeed in higher education, in the workplace, and in life. Mastering core content is essential in any subject area, but it is only one aspect of learning.

Chinese schools should take a page out of the American educational playbook and diversify the knowledge of their students. It’s time the Chinese educational system realized that a well-rounded education is helpful to students in the long-run. But American schools should also learn a thing or two from the Chinese system and seriously emphasize the importance of basic reading, math, and science. Creativity can only flourish with a solid foundation.

As with many things, the answer lies not in one extreme or the other, but comfortably somewhere in the middle.

Photo courtesy of Consolidated News Photos, Inc.