Monday, October 21, 2013

Reflections on trip to China

Have had a couple of weeks to reflect on latest trip toChina. Every time I visit, I feel some sense of belonging, even though my family is several generations removed from the mother country. The food, language, ways of doing things are familiar, and yet somehow also strange and exotic.

Wandering around the streets of Beijing or Tianjin, I could feel the energy of people set on progressing forward. The sheer magnitude of people is overwhelming. The pollution in Beijing and Tianjin is also a sobering reminder that progress has consequences. However, the Chinese are aware of their environmental challenges. Lots more trees seem to be grown in the Beijing area and new developments have park lands set aside to ensure the cities are not a continual urban sprawl.

Again, I saw instances of young people assisting others. Two young trendily dressed women in high heels, helped an older woman carry a bundle up the subway stairs. They pitched in without being asked and waved away the older woman’s gestures of thanks. Young men gave their seats up on the subway to the elderly and grandmas taking their grandchild to school. These were spontaneous everyday events. I find I am taken for a local, so the small acts of kindness were not done to impress foreigners.

I enjoyed my sojourns into the local neighbourhoods without by Kiwi colleagues. On the two occasions I went shopping with them, we were inundated by shop keepers, beggars and touts. So, visiting the local areas on my own, yielded more authentic experiences. The non-tourist areas still find foreigners to be a novelty. When I took one of my Kiwi colleagues into the back streets behind the hotel in Tianjin to find breakfast, we were treated with kindness and humour. My fractured Mandarin managed to navigate us through the challenges of ordering and paying for breakfast. The vendors and other patrons were curious to find out where we were from and happy to assist with queries. Despite the emphasis on learning English as a second language in Chinese schools, once outside the usual tourist areas, the older locals tend to not have any English.

My conscience is slightly conflicted with regards to being viewed as an ‘expert’ in vocational pedagogy. The Chinese are keen to encourage greater innovation and creative in their technician occupations. The Ministry of Education has set a direction for vocational education to move from didactic teaching to be more learning-focused. In particular, to use problem or inquiry-based learning and learner participative strategies like role plays and simulations. The government funds architecturally spectacular physical learning spaces and state of the art technical equipment. Their task is now to up-skill their software, the over a million vocational educators PLUS transition their learners from a school system with emphasis on rote learning to self-directed learners AND convince parents that vocational education is just as good, if not a better option than a university education. These challenges are not unique as we in NZ are working towards similar goals albeit on a much smaller scale and with a social structure somewhat more attuned to ‘transformative’ learning approaches.

I think my objective in the next visit is to encourage our Chinese colleagues to reflect on their own approaches. What works for them? What do they see as the strengths of Chinese pedagogy? How do their students find learning through case studies, problem and inquiry-based learning approaches? What influences do students find, will enhance their learning? We should also try to talk to students who have recently completed their vocational ed. and find out if the 'newer' approaches have prepared them for work. If the approaches have, what aspects contributed to assisting them in their new jobs? What were the useful generic skills they learnt through participation in alternative learning approaches? Ditto for employers. Are the graduates they employ, entering the workforce with the level of productivity required of entry-level technicians? What support would employers provide for entry-level staff, to assist them to settle in and 'belong' to the workplace and trade/industry? So, lots to look forward to exploring in the near future.