Chinese and U.S. Education: Innovation Without Borders

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The differences between the U.S. and Chinese education systems are evident.  The Chinese system is driven by a student’s need to perform on the Gaokao, a two day college entrance exam taken during the high school years. The U.S. system, on the other hand, takes a somewhat more holistic view of primary and secondary education, while still being driven by mandated assessments.

In the Chinese system, an entire family’s life builds to the moment a student takes the Gaokao.  Those two days can determine the future of not only the student, but their family as well.

The stakes are higher, and realer, than anything we can imagine in the United States.  My goal here is not to fixate on the obvious differences between our two systems, which is the topic of much discussion, but rather to focus on what remains the same in teaching and learning between two often competing world superpowers.

During my time spent in Beijing exploring the culture of teaching and the modern Chinese worldview, two themes became apparent.  First, China is enduring a period of remarkable growth and change.  Global economic shifts are turning China into arguably the most influential economy in the world, with a sphere of influence expanding quicker than that of any other country.  An attitude of incredible pride and optimism pervades much of the Chinese population.  Never before in modern history have the cards been set so heavily in favor of the Chinese.

A second theme is pride in traditional culture.  The Middle Kingdom is a nation with a richer history than most.  As one college student at Beijing’s Renmin University politely put it, the culture and history of China, with millennia to its name, goes far deeper than some countries can even imagine.  No argument here.  Both ideas combine to form the central tenet of Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” the nation’s goal of looking to build a stronger future in the 21st Century, while appreciating and giving due respect to a past brimming with beloved tradition.

The same can be said for education in China.  The idea behind the Gaokao system in nothing new.  High stakes exams have been commonplace in China since the imperial examinations of the Tang Dynasty, when government positions were given not by birthright, but by merit through proven proficiency in a series of rigorous evaluations open to the public.  Within this education system rooted in Confucian tradition, however, there is certainly an eye to the future.

As part of our Fulbright-Hays Group Project, we had the opportunity to interact with many Chinese educators, visit different schools, and interact with students.

Some of the most eye-opening interactions we had were with leading figure in Chinese, and global, education reform, Jiang Xueqing.  Jiang is an advocate for incorporating creativity and project based learning in Chinese education, and he has had success doing so.

With the goal of preparing students for the global workforce, Jiang works as a consultant helping Chinese schools to incorporate more student-centered learning into existing curriculum.  One project Jiang spoke of to meet those goals was the creation of a student-led coffee shop on school grounds open to the public. The project not only gave students real work experience, but gave high school students the opportunity to design the physical shop, make real managerial decisions, and run a profitable business. Obvious setbacks aside, the project was wildly successful, and has been adopted at schools throughout China as a model for entrepreneurial STEAM based learning, two concepts that all U.S. educators truly appreciate for their real world value, as well as the difficulty of successful implementation.

That idea is not foreign to U.S. teaching.  In fact, my own school, West York Area Middle School in York, Pennsylvania, recently adopted a similar student-led coffee shop model – the Bulldog Brew – led by a progressive minded colleague.  Creativity in education is a global pursuit.

The hardships that face teachers in the United States are not absent from Chinese education.  The difficulties teachers often face motivating students became clear when speaking to an English as a Second Language teacher at Beijing YuYuanTan High School.  “Learning English is difficult,” she told a group of us.  “Students do not want to learn the grammar rules needed to write and speak English.” As a middle school English teacher myself, I certainly empathized with this teacher’s plight, which must be greater than mine.  The vast majority of my students are native English speakers, which cannot be said for her student population.  How did this teacher overcome this obstacle? “I tailor my teaching to their needs,” she said.  She went on to describe her use of formative assessment, but more interestingly, she described her use of differentiation, a driving force in current U.S. pedagogy.  She described getting to know her students, and using their interests in assignments as a way of engaging them in their learning, as well as developing different learning tasks for groups of students based on their learning styles.

Although it may be a far reach to say that both of these individuals are the norm in the Chinese education system, they do reflect a cultural shift of preparing students to be successful in the future, looking beyond the daunting Gaokao to what is needed for success in the 21st Century.

One final similarity became clear through our dialogue with educators, and our interactions with Chinese students – teachers that really do care, and students that really do want to learn.  Perhaps the highlight of my time spent exploring the Chinese education system was the opportunity to work with a small group of students at a middle school in Yuxian, Hebei Province.  After an hour-long roundtable discussion of pedagogical differences with teachers at the school, we American teachers were each brought to a classroom where we would work with Chinese students for a 40 minute period.

What stuck out to me the most from my time playing English-Chinese Simon Says and other basic language-learning activities was the eagerness and the joy with which the students participated.  Their eagerness to learn and grow, to understand the directions I was floundering so obviously to give them, and to interact with someone so culturally separated from what they knew, astounded me.  I will forever have a place in my heart for my students in Yuxian.

Yes, China and the United States are different.  Politically, we stand divided.  Culturally, some differences are there as well.  But we both strive to prepare our next generation for their future as best that we can.  Like teachers passionate about bettering their craft for the sake of their students, like those students who possess an innate desire to learn and to grow, innovations in the art of teaching truly know no borders.


Gettysburg’s Fulbright-Hays GPA –1st Three Days

Hello from Beijing!

Gettysburg College’s Group Project Abroad (GPA), supported by the Fulbright-Hays program of the U.S. Department of Education, has now officially begun. We arrived Monday afternoon and have just completed our second full day of exhilarating – yet exhausting — activities.

It is remarkable how much we have already managed to accomplish and do in just two full days. On Tuesday evening, a special banquet was prepared by CET, the organization which is expertly facilitating all the logistics and programs of our month in Beijing. CET made sure all of the participants in our GPA met at least one local connection who is involved in various areas of interest for said participant. (I personally met up with Teng Jimeng, a media scholar of the Beijing Language and Culture University – a most fruitful discussion!)

Yet it was only at today’s (Wednesday, June 7th) afternoon session did it become clear to me how significant the meetings of the previous evening were for many of our participants. David Moser, the director of CET, was giving a talk about Chinese Development, but he wanted to first explain how Confucianism has been revived by the Chinese government. For example, he noted how the 2008 Beijing Olympics emphasized Confucianism, yet it made no references to Mao, the key founder of the current “communist” state in China. Confucianism is not about absolute truth per se, says Moser, but about harmony; it does not have so much rules or commandments, but is rather based more on ethical instincts. Mao tried to destroy all of that, leaving a vast ethical void after his death. In recent years, the Chinese government has decided that bringing back Confucianism is the only way to reestablish some moral order in Chinese society.

This is where education comes into the picture. Moser in particular gave us a detailed overview (including several remarkable images) of how the old imperial exams were managed. These prolonged exams were about the classics of Chinese civilization. This resulted in the first full-scale governing meritocracy in history. Yet everyone seemed to pay a price for this, most of all those actually taking the exams. The actual exams were arduous beyond belief, imposing so much pressure on the test takers that many would literally go crazy. Some devised ingenious ways to cheat, including writing passages of classics on the inside of their robes.

David Moser also noted how strong that legacy remains today in China with the gaokao (literally “high tests”) which students take to get into the best secondary schools and colleges as they possibly can. What struck me the most as a professor at Gettysburg College is how much today I am learning from our K-12 participants, all of whom had some insightful reaction to this incredible pressure mill. In addition, I realized how beneficial the meetings with local educators led to some revealing results. Of particular note is how differently China handles issues of special education, or how China deals with the pronounced rural-urban divide when it comes to education. Several brought up how the Chinese dealt with (or do not exactly deal with) issues such as autism and Asberger’s.

Just coincidentally, today and tomorrow are the dates of this year’s gaokao in China. Right after the session, several of the teachers in our GPA went down to a nearby school to see throngs of anxious family members nervously waiting for their children to complete the first day. The crowds were so intense, that Lindsay Gottwald of West York School district hurt her arm while shooting some remarkable video footage!

It goes to show that we professors have it easy – K-12 teachers? They are made of steel.

Etiquette dinner

Gettysburg College Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad Chinese Etiquette Dinner

Betsy Lavolette

Director, Language Resource Center, Gettysburg College

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To prepare for our meal together in Gettysburg and future meals in China, we watched a few videos:

Then, on May 8, we met at Li’s Buffet to apply what we’d learned. We had a special menu of Beijing cuisine prepared just for us!

Michelle Rodriguez checks out the duck
Michelle Rodriguez checks out the duck

In addition to discussion the etiquette involved in where each person should sit, we also learned to use chopsticks.

Chris Fee using chopsticks
Chris Fee using chopsticks

And we practiced using Chinese to order food.

Meredith Piatt enjoying shrimp
Meredith Piatt enjoying shrimp

Huge thanks to our special guests, Dr. Junjie Luo, Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies; Ms. Yingjia Zheng, Lecturer in Chinese; and Mr. Brad Lancaster, Director of International Student Services, who came to help us learn proper etiquette and answer our questions about China. We are also grateful that they helped to consume the enormous quantities of food!

Air pollution protection

Betsy Lavolette

Director, Language Resource Center, Gettysburg College

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I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what mask(s) to bring to protect myself against the air pollution in Beijing. A friend who spent some time in Singapore recommended disposable masks, but I am afraid that the pollution in Beijing may require something more. In my searching, I found a blog post that is quite informative and that addresses the pros and cons of disposable masks and reusable fabric ones.

One concern that I have that isn’t really addressed in the blog post is how to remain comfortable in the heat while wearing a face mask. It looks like the photos in the post were taken during the winter, but we’ll be traveling in June. I can just imagine how hot and sweaty the masks get. But at least you don’t need as much sunscreen, right?

I’m looking at this mask for myself. What do you think?

Update, 5/9/2017:

I ended up buying these disposable masks.

Chinese art and religion (and other issues)

Betsy Lavolette

Director, Language Resource Center, Gettysburg College

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On February 13, Dr. Deborah Sommer from the Gettysburg College Department of Religion was kind enough to lead a discussion on Chinese art and religion and other issues.

Dr. Sommer provided access to some book chapters that she wrote about Confucian spirituality and Taoism.

I took some notes from the discussion, as follows. Please note that this is not a summary, but merely an account of what I wrote down. Please feel free to add points that I forgot in the comments!

General advice for our stay in Beijing

  • Always carry your passport when you are in China. It serves as your ID card.
  • Don’t take photos of military or buildings with Chinese insignia. You risk having your camera confiscated.
  • Always wear a mask because of the heavy pollution.
  • Be extremely careful of traffic, which may not follow traffic laws. Even on the sidewalk, you should be alert for motorcycles and motorized bicycles, which are completely silent. Walk in a straight line so that you aren’t hit by motorized bicycles trying to pass you from behind.
  • Don’t bring up Christianity or other religions.
  • Don’t bring a bible with you.
  • Don’t get involved in activism or protests.
  • Don’t tell anyone that you are a journalist (whether you are or not).
  • Public toilets are generally free, but bring your own toilet paper with you because it is not provided. The style is usually squat, not western.

Food and drink

  • Don’t eat at food stalls because of the risk of dysentery.
  • Look out for mold and insects in food.
  • China has food adulteration problems.
  • Always boil water before drinking it or brushing your teeth with it. Water may be contaminated with sewage.
  • Bring antibiotics with you in case of food poisoning.
  • You may get sick when you arrive because of the different microbes in China, but this is different from food poisoning.


  • WeChat is a popular app that can be used to communicate both within China and with your friends and family in the US.
  • You can buy a Chinese cell phone, but you may need to go to a special shop for foreigners to buy a SIM card.


  • China is basically a cash society. You can withdraw money from American bank accounts at ATMs.
  • You can imagine that Beijing is about as expensive as NYC. Bring around $2000 to 3000 for a month.
  • Many Chinese are currently using WeChat to pay via their cell phones.
  • Only change money at a bank. Otherwise, you are likely to get fake money.
  • If you do get fake money, just spend it.


  • Recommended excursions outside Beijing include Chengde and Qufu.
  • Recommended tourist sites within Beijing include Beihai Park, Temple of Heaven, Panjiayuan Market, Confucian Temple
  • Especially at big tourist sites and markets, watch out for pickpockets and scammers.
  • A good way to see the city is to ask a graduate student at the university to show you around. You offer to pay for the sightseeing and food, and the student gets to practice English for the day.
  • Time Out Beijing is a useful site for foreigners living in Beijing. It provides information on what is currently happening, restaurants, etc.
  • Be careful at night because the nightlife in Beijing is completely different from the nightlife in cities in the US. You may get mixed up in something you cannot handle.
  • Barbershops and massage parlors are actually brothels.
  • The metro is crowded, but cheap and efficient. It costs about $0.75 to ride.

Dr. David Moser, CET Academic Director- and celebrity!

Betsy Lavolette

Director, Language Resource Center, Gettysburg College

Latest posts by Betsy Lavolette (see all)

For a linguistics geek such as myself, the idea of studying at CET in Beijing is incredibly exciting! Naturally, I am very interested in studying Mandarin Chinese in a setting where I can also use the language outside the classroom. But above and beyond that, to me, the CET Academic Director David Moser is a total rock star!

I first heard his name as an expert on the Chinese language, cited on Language Log. But Dr. Moser is not merely known for linguistics. He is also regularly seen on China Central Television (CCTV), speaking both English and Chinese. Given that we will be studying the Chinese education system, check out the following video in which he is a guest talking about preschool education in the US and China.

Another reason that Dr. Moser is a rock star to me is his recent (2016) book, A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language. This book is a very quick read, and it helped me understand what the “Chinese language” is and how and why it was developed.

We have Dr. Moser on our schedule to give some of the lectures while we are in China, and I couldn’t be more excited to learn from him. I hope you are, too!