Recognizing the Learner

Nile Stanley and Yue Meng explore the effect of culture on the learning process

With the fast development of the Chinese economy, more and more students from China can afford to study abroad. From 2008 to 2011, the number of Chinese undergraduates in the U.S. tripled to 40,000 students, making them the largest group of foreign students at American colleges. The opportunity not only bolstered American diversity but also brought monetary benefits, since most Chinese students were from China’s rapidly expanding middle class and can afford to pay full tuition.

China’s expanding English language market has also given rise to plenty of opportunities for American teachers who have TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificates. Many Americans find it easier to land a job in China than the U.S. because of the growing demand for native-speaking English teachers. As the old Chinese saying states “opportunities always come with challenges.” The different teaching styles in American and Chinese schools may create difficulties for Chinese or American students in understanding their teachers, thus compromising the efficiency of teaching and learning.

In this article, we will discuss three differences between American education and Chinese education: general cultural differences, teaching style differences, and learning style differences. Experiences of the exchange between American and Chinese schools will be explained, and recommendations for combining the strengths of both countries will be made in order to benefit the overall education performance for each.

General Cultural Differences
Among the many differences between the Chinese and American education systems, the most significant is cultural. In China, the concept of the self is collectivist, which means a higher value is placed on group cooperation and individual modesty. Therefore, teachers in China pay more attention to overall group performance rather than individual performance. It is important for teachers to make sure that no one is lagging behind and the majority of the class has a good performance. In contrast, the concept of the self in America is individualist, which means a higher value is placed on self-reliance.

Americans value freedom and self-promotion among their students. It is normal that students are allowed to eat and talk whenever they want in many American classes. However, such behavior is totally unimaginable in a Chinese class.

As for the difference in social relationships, Chinese people tend to be more comfortable in the presence of a hierarchy in which they know their position and the rules for behavior in the situation. However, Americans are more comfortable with their social equals. Compared to Chinese students, American students are generally more animated and open-minded. In China, students are asked to abide by the rules in school, even when some rules are too rigid and unreasonable.

The emphasis on harmony also plays an important role in Chinese education. Unlike American students who are willing to confront directly, criticize, and discuss controversial topics, Chinese students avoid direct confrontation with authority. Instead of questioning the textbook and what they have been taught, Chinese students usually accept all the knowledge passed on by the teacher. Obeying rules and following the teacher are done to show respect for the teacher.

Another interesting cultural difference is the value placed on respect in Chinese culture. The Chinese language reflects this value by the prominent use of respectful words. It is expected that one will respect the other person and treat him or her well. Thus, teachers are highly respected in Chinese society. The students are asked to totally respect their teachers, even sometimes if it seems to cross the line of what is reasonable.

Teaching Style Difference

Brown (2000) summarizes current teaching style theories into three major categories: behavioral theory, humanistic theory, and cognitive theory. Behavioral theory focuses on using external stimuli to influence learning, with frequent feedback and use of performance reinforcements as incentives to promote learning. Humanistic theory emphasizes the integration of cognitive and related learning experiences. Cognitive theory stresses how information is delivered, stored, and recalled for problem solving.

For most students in China (and many in the U.S.), the objective of study is to enter college and hopefully obtain a good job. Getting high scores at the end of semester becomes the objective of most schools and students. The behavioral theory is used frequently as the most effective way to see the improvement of students’ grades in China. Usually courses in China include lots of quizzes and exams, which are used as external stimuli to enhance the performance of students.

Durkin (2004) found that the traditional teaching styles in Chinese schools were teacher-centered and exam-based. However, American teachers focused on critical reading, critical writing, and debating skills. Many classes in America are based around discussion of material and students are expected to be engaged. Com­pared with Chinese exam-determined teaching, American teachers more often use a variety of assessments in the final grade. Chinese classrooms do not place the same emphasis on classroom participation — often, the teacher lectures and students listen quietly.

Learning Style Differences
American students tend to enjoy a more relaxed educational experience compared to their Chinese peers. Since competition to get into college is intense, most Chinese students spend a large proportion of each day studying. Around the world, Chinese students are perceived as more diligent and driven than their counterparts in America.

Chinese students are often quiet and, instead of asking questions, they may be more comfortable with answering questions. It is believed by some that most Chinese students are rote and passive learners. Redding (1990) summarized that the Chinese have five characteristics in their thinking and learning behaviors: focus on perception of the concrete, non-development of abstract thought, emphasis on specifics, central focus, and care for harmony. There is an increasing concern that the lack of creativity in China’s education will block the continuing development of China’s economy. Without innovating core technology, the Chinese government has already realized that their manufacturing-based economy will be left behind in the world competition for new technology. However, educational change occurs slowly in China, according to many observers.

A Chinese Student in the U.S.
Yue is a graduate student majoring in Educational Technology at the University of North Florida on a one-year exchange program. Her experience as an international student in the U.S. is interesting and educational:

“I chose three courses this semester, and the most amazing part of the class is the teachers. I never thought that teachers could be so easy-going and willing to help me outside of the class time. In China, most teachers are too serious to become friends with students. We respect teachers so much that we will use respectful language when talking with the teacher.
“Another interesting part in American classes is the students. Their behavior is surprisingly casual in class. They can talk, eat, and even wear sandals in class, which would not be permitted in a Chinese classroom.

“Besides this, I am also surprised to find how detailed the syllabus and schedule of one course could be. In China, usually we wouldn’t be told the schedule on the first day of class. Normally we will just follow the steps by teacher and vaguely know about the next step and the next homework or quiz. The syllabus and schedule provide so much convenience for me that I can be better prepared for the class and have more time to do the homework since I already know what the homework is on the first day of the class.
“Apart from the class, I also think that compared with Chinese students, American students have a lot of freedom, and sometimes even too much freedom. They don’t stress too much over grades, and there are lots of extra-curricular activities for them to join, which will certainly compromise their studies if they don’t balance the time.

“However, I also admire the independence of American students. Most of my American friends have part-time jobs. It is normal that the college students start to support themselves after they enter college. That means they need to work while studying in order to earn living expenses. I think the job experience must be very fulfilling and also give the students more chances to understand their own needs and career pursuits. On the contrary, most Chinese college students are financially supported by their parents. Therefore, most of the Chinese college students still feel like the old teenagers who need the protection of their parents. It is true that finding a job and starting to work are the most effective ways to learn the society rules and promote the maturation of one person. I did learn a lot from both American college and my American friends.”

An American professor in China
Dr. Nile Stanley is program leader for elementary education and a literacy professor at the University of North Florida. In 2011, he participated in a productive educational trip that included visits to primary classrooms and lectures in China at Hubei University, Wuhan City, Shaanxi Normal University, Xian, and Nanjing Normal University. He is currently working with administrators and colleagues to provide more opportunities for faculty and student exchange in research, teaching and service. His observations are framed with an overarching question: Can prospective and experienced American teachers succeed in China?

Dr. Stanley said this about his experience:

“Upon arriving in Wuhan City, a central Chinese city of nine million, I was immediately struck with the realization that China is a sleeping giant that has roared and is on an economic binge. There is frenzied construction, pollution, massive traffic congestion, skyscrapers, subways, bullet trains, telecommunications towers, and schools, lots of schools where the Chinese offer incentives for westerners to teach English. Recently graduated, certified American teachers are offered stipends, travel expenses, lodging and meals, and paid graduate tuition for a two-year teaching commitment in China.

“The Chinese primary schools are elementary schools with marked differences compared to United States elementary school. Class size and type of instruction are the first noticeable differences. Teachers typically stand in front of the class and teach to the whole class of 55 to 65 students. Teaching methods are primarily lecture, questioning, and rote memorization. United States elementary teachers typically use flexible grouping and more eclectic strategies to classes ranging from 18 to 25. The curriculum in China is standard nationwide and examination-based. China’s teachers maintain discipline easily, demand respect, and get it. Much seriousness, efficiency, compliance, and time on task was the order of the day. The children worked very diligently and were allowed a break every fifty minutes.

“Hu (2004) observed that Chinese instruction is based on the Confucian tradition that stresses political and social stability. There are two key concepts of hierarchy and obedience. Teachers in America complain about the lack of discipline, motivation, and parental support. The principals reminded me that Chinese have the one child birth rule, which may influence parents to be stricter than Western parents. Many college students I spoke with confirmed that their Chinese mothers can be strict. This was documented in Amy Chua’s (2011) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. Children are expected to be “Grade A” in every subject except classes considered frivolous like drama and art. Music is fine if it is with a piano or violin.

“There is much competition for Chinese children to attend top-tier universities in the United States or other countries. Chinese parents view English as the gateway to success, innovation, and creativity. One rigorous, nine-hour long college entrance test administered in high school, the gao kao, determines the fate of 10 million Chinese students. In 2010, 3.13 million college hopefuls were rejected from attending a university in China (Lafranier, 2004).

“From my experiences, special educators and school counselors do not seem to be common in China. In China, children who cannot keep up with the academic rigor may be sent home and urged to study harder. Pang and Richey (2006) observed that China has made good progress in education, including some aspects of special education. However, services provided to children with disabilities are not as high quality or commonly practiced as in the United States, especially in rural areas where about 80% of the population lives. This will be a challenge for United States teachers in China because these teachers have usually been educated in full inclusion educational philosophy.

“Chinese children are much more fit than U.S. children and physical exercise and sports occur throughout the school day. I noticed American fast food restaurants are becoming widespread in China, and their detrimental effects are rising for those who frequent them. In America, childhood obesity is a problem, while athletic and fitness programs have experienced many budget cutbacks.

“China runs exceedingly well on conformity and uniformity. I do not recall seeing a single faculty or student with long hair, a beard, or a mustache. I did see many young women sporting the chic fashions we have become accustomed to seeing in popular music videos. I was impressed with the Chinese university students’ command of spoken English. However, they told me that they much preferred and appreciated that my lectures were delivered with English-Mandarin Power Points and an accompanying Chinese translation by a skilled interpreter. I peppered my lectures with poetry, stories, and humor and students referred to me as the “funny one.” As I mingled with students on campus, I was surprised to see many reading aloud and reciting English to prepare for upcoming language tests. I beamed at the thought of my U.S. students being more respectful, more studious, and more vigilant with the opportunity education offers. I feel that we take education for granted.

“I was told by university educators that China was encouraging faculty exchange to provide English speaking/writing role models and to balance instruction from rigid behaviorist teaching to a more constructivist instruction. The Chinese say they want to temper competence and efficiency with more innovation and creativity. Some Chinese also believe that Americans can assist students in becoming more innovative and critical thinkers. The United States’ teachers can introduce Chinese students to more interpersonal projects and arts-based learning.

“I am left with the question as to whether United States educators will find success as teachers of English in China. In other words, do our teacher candidates have the necessary knowledge, skills and dispositions to teach in China (NCATE, 2011)? At my institution, our teacher education candidates graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education with an endorsement in TESOL and must pass a state teacher certification examination; therefore, I am confident they possess the knowledge to teach in the United States. All candidates take methods courses, teach in supervised practice, and have the skills of pedagogy needed for United States teaching. Dispositions, also referred to as attitudes, values, and perceptions, seem to be learned more in the heart than in the head. According to Hallam (2009), dispositions may be the most crucial aspect of teacher success. I asked our TESOL professors what teacher dispositions are most important for student success in teaching language abroad. Respect for cultural diversity, open mindedness, versatile, adaptable, caring, and wanting to make a difference were frequent responses.”

Davis (2004) who teaches Chinese English teachers in Nanjing, China offers practical advice and online resources at for those wanting to teach English abroad. The first step begins by talking to people in the field, your professors, former graduates, and online to teachers working in the country where you want to teach. Be careful of your conversations, you might just open the door to a new career, renewed confidence in your ability to succeed in a new environment, a better understanding of yourself, cultural values, and ways of life.

The U.S. Senate stated a compelling reason to teach abroad, “Educating students internationally is an important way to share the values of the United States, to create goodwill for the U.S. around the world, to work toward a peaceful global society, and to increase international trade” (as cited in Language Magazine, December 2011). To follow the wisdom of Confucius — wherever we send our teachers, we should send them with all of our heart and all of our best preparation.

Dr. Nile Stanley ( is program leader for elementary education and a literacy professor at the University of North Florida. Yue Meng ( is a graduate student in educational technology at UNF from an exchange program with Shaanxi Normal University, Xian, China.

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