Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

November 23, 2013

GCS principal calls China visit constructive

By Rob Cox Daily News
Greensburg Daily News

---- — GREENSBURG — Last week, officials with Greensburg Community Schools (GCS) joined their counterparts at Decatur County Community Schools (DCCS) in welcoming a Chinese school administrator from Suichang, China, Greensburg’s official “sister city.”

According to Greensburg Junior High School (GJHS) Principal Matt Clifford, Mao Weihua, principal of Suichang Yucai Middle School, toured all three GCS buildings during his day-long visit to the district. Clifford chaperoned Weihua’s visit, and hosted the Chinese principal at GJHS for the majority of the stay.

“We spent the morning at the elementary school and the high school,” Clifford explained. “We spent the afternoon at our school.”

Clifford told the Daily News the visit was interesting, enlightening and educational.

Weihua and his GCS escorts toured class-to-class in the morning, Clifford said, with Weihua making observations and asking several questions.

One of the biggest differences the Chinese principal noticed was the amount of collaborative, hands-on group work at GCS schools compared to China.

“Over there,” Clifford said, “students are largely to themselves throughout the class period.”

Upon Weihua’s arrival at GJHS to spend the afternoon, a small group of students and teachers held a welcoming celebration for the Chinese principal. Students made banners and presented Weihua with letters and gifts, including a letter jacket, an English textbook and a curriculum guide.

“He was very interested in our English curriculum,” Clifford noted, adding that it was “interesting to see our students interact with him.”

For his part, Weihua presented GJHS students with a painting by a Chinese student.

After the welcoming event, Clifford and GJHS Assistant Principal Deb Smith sat down with Weihua for an “administrative conversation.” Topics during the session included operational practices, scheduling, evaluations and curriculum creation, according to Clifford.

“We talked to him about what we’re working on at the junior high school,” the GJHS principal added, “and he got an insight into how we run things on an administrative level. We saw differences and similarities between our two systems, but we saw far more similarities.”

Clifford acknowledged, however, that the differences between the two schools systems were “impressive.”

Clifford also echoed comments by DCCS Superintendent Johnny Budd to the Daily News regarding his corporation’s Chinese visit on the same day. Budd said his conversations with the Chinese reinforced his understanding that media reports decrying America’s education system as inferior to the Chinese system are overblown and skewed.

The national media, Clifford said, constantly trumpet an alleged American inferiority to the Chinese educational system, but it’s not an “apples to apples comparison.”

“Those comparisons,” Clifford said, “are drawn between their top performing-students and every American student.”

“In China,” he continued, “K through 12 education isn’t compulsory, so only their top students move on to a high school education. Once you get past the media dialogue, you see they are very, very similar to us. They’re trying to reach and motivate their students the same as we are.”

One of the most important differences Clifford noticed was in regards to the Chinese mindset concerning education.

“They’ve managed to make the value of an education a top priority,” the principal said. “Whereas here, we sometimes tend to take it for granted.”

With the move toward greater and greater levels of standardized testing in Indiana in recent years, Clifford was especially interested in the importance of such tests in Chinese education. In China, he noted, standardized testing is “everything; it determines their place in life to a large degree.”

With that being the case, Clifford was somewhat surprised to find that Weihua recognized that “a test doesn’t tell the whole story for a student.” Weihua in fact acknowledged that the amount of standardized testing in the Chinese system might be excessive.

“That’s what we’ve been talking about and debating here in Indiana for a while now,” Clifford said. “We need to be accountable, but we want to look at and educate the whole student. A single test isn’t representative of that.”

Regardless of the differences and similarities behind the scenes, Clifford further noted, the student experience is remarkably similar between the two systems. “The stakes are different [over there],” he said, “but the experience appears very similar for students.”

Teachers in Chinese system have significant advantages over teachers here, the principal added.

Chinese teachers only teach two class periods and spend the rest of their day planning or working with students one-on-one. In contrast, American teachers teach six or seven classes a day, leaving not nearly as much time for one-on-one instruction time. Teachers there manage fewer students, too.

One aspect of Chinese education Clifford was particularly impressed with was their technique for lesson planning. Teachers in China, he said, rely heavily on peer feedback in creating lesson plans. Chinese teachers are, in fact, required to collaborate with another teacher on every lesson before presenting it to students. Every lesson must be vetted, reflected upon and discussed with another teacher.

Clifford would like to create a plan for integrating peer feedback into the lesson planning of his own teachers. “Historically,” he said, “teaching in the US can be isolated. Traditionally, there isn’t a lot of peer feedback regarding lesson planning. But if you can impress fellow teachers with a lesson, you’re much more likely to impress your students.”

He added, “In china they make it a competition. Weihua was an award-winning, master teacher before he moved on to become a principal.”

Clifford and his teachers face one very large hurdle in incorporating peer feedback into the lesson-planning process, however; that hurdle again relates to the Chinese advantage in time. With only two classes to teach in the course of a day, Chinese teachers simply have far greater amounts of time to collaborate and provide each other with feedback.

Still, Clifford was sufficiently impressed with the idea of peer feedback that he’d nonetheless like to find a way to incorporate it into his school’s lesson-planning.

“There’s a lot of value in teachers holding each other accountable for lessons,” he said. “But how do we build it into our days? That’s the significant challenge we face.”

Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011; robert.cox@greensburgdailynews.com