‘In classes of fifty, student-centred learning descends into chaos

The head of teacher development at China’s biggest private English language teaching organization stands up for traditional Chinese teaching methods

At the annual Iatefl conference this year, British teacher-training guru Jim Scrivener was roundly defeated in his defence of Communicative Language Teaching by a young Chinese woman who argued passionately and in perfect English for the benefits of traditional Chinese teaching methods.

The name of this talented debater was Jocelyn Wang, director of teacher development and management at New Oriental, China’s largest language teaching organisation. The company has 73 schools, 803 learning centres and 20,400 teachers in 61 cities across the country. Here, she explains in more detail what she believes to be the benefits – and drawbacks – of the Chinese way of teaching languages.

Jocelyn Wang writes: When Chinese learners learn anything, they value quantity. The more quantifiable items a teacher gives me in a single lesson, the more I can take away, study at home, memorise and rewrite up in my notebook. This is essentially the Chinese idea of learning, so it also applies to the learning of languages.

A Chinese language learner expects the teacher to give them long lists of vocabulary, whole sentences and lots of other ‘chunks of language’. With these, the learner can go away and process the list – filtering out the things most useful and the things less personally valuable.

We have to remember that, in China, on the whole, language is still taught in very large classes, so the idea of ‘individual learner needs’ is not a reality. In a class of fifty English learners, the teacher cannot consider needs in the same way that a teacher of small groups can. The teacher will instead use a ‘seed approach’.

As a teacher, if I can throw out enough seeds in a lesson, some of these will grow. Of course, some of these seeds will be wasted, but this is the way that the learner expects lessons to unfold.

The Chinese way of learning languages is often illustrated as lacking in practice. The whole idea of practice sits awkwardly with our view of learning. As I’ve mentioned, quantity rules, and practice simply means I learn fewer items. It also represents, in the Chinese learner’s mind, sections of the lesson where I’m not learning anything new – and you, the teacher, are not teaching me anything.

It’s possible to overcome this if you have the same group of learners for ten hours a week over the course of six months or a year, and you could employ strategies to coax the learners into changing their mindsets.

This is tricky because it requires a high level of skill from the teacher, but the main problem is that most teachers have far less time with their language learners. Many courses are just twenty hours long.

“I’ve seen many foreign teachers come to China and tell their students on day one, ‘Don’t be afraid of mistakes’. These words will fall on deaf ears ”

Although the distinct lack of practice might not in itself be an advantage, teachers will opt for this as a default approach simply because it’s still what our learners expect from a language course. In time this may change, but in today’s classrooms teachers address the expectations of today’s learners.

Another feature of Chinese language learning is a strong teacher-centred approach. Contemporary ideas tell us that student-centred lessons are more effective, get better results and lead to better learning – and I would agree with all of this in certain contexts.

In a class of fifty teenagers, however, student-centred learning descends into chaos and is extremely difficult to manage. Very little learning is likely to occur unless you are a truly superb teacher with exceptional classroom management skills and an ability to craft highly ambitious lessons. Such teachers are rare in any country. The teacher-centred approach is simply one that fits our physical environment, teacher profiles and our learner expectations.

I’m not trying to argue that the Chinese way of learning is better than any other way of learning. It is simply the way that fits our circumstances, our context and our learners.

Teachers in China are not so stubborn that they shun other approaches or methods. Many have tried to experiment but it rarely produces successful outcomes.

The vast majority of language teachers in China are not afforded the luxury of small classes. Eventually I’d love to see teacher development in China address many of these areas, giving teachers the tools and opportunities to experiment and involve learners more, possibly changing the learners’ views on language learning and being more receptive to alternative methods. But the Chinese way of learning has been around for a long time and we can’t expect to change it overnight.

It is true that Chinese students are weaker in the speaking sections of international tests such as Ielts.

This is because Chinese learners are afraid of making mistakes. I’ve seen many foreign teachers come to China and tell their students on day one, ‘Don’t be afraid of mistakes; mistakes are a valuable part of learning; mistakes can be useful.’

These words fall on deaf ears. The Chinese learner and learners from other East Asian countries are not just afraid of mistakes, they are culturally and socially influenced by the concept of ‘losing face’. Producing an error-strewn string of ‘foreign words’ is losing face. A learner will happily and comfortably produce a well-rehearsed sentence or utterance, safe in the knowledge that it is error-free. If you ask that learner to go out of his or her comfort zone and force them to talk about unfamiliar topics or push them to their linguistic ceiling, you are in fact asking them to lose face. At this point they are likely to clam up in embarrassment.

It’s such an important factor in the productive skills classroom that teachers almost never ask their learners to speak. When we are learning productive skills we don’t want to produce anything in the classroom. You, the teacher, can give me examples of ‘language production’. I’ll take these away and reproduce them if and when I’m ready.

This can sometimes sound strange to someone who has not grown up in a culture where ‘face’ is an important feature of daily life. My British colleague said recently, ‘But my Chinese is really awful – I’ll happily sit there babbling away making all sorts of mistakes and it doesn’t bother me.’ I replied, ‘When we hear you doing that we can’t believe that you’re not embarrassed to the point of shame’ – because we would be.

‘I loved English lessons from the very beginning’

Jocelyn Wang talks about her personal experience of learning English language

  • How did you begin learning English?
    I was quite lucky because my exposure to English came much earlier than most typical kids growing up in China. Both my parents were English teachers, so by the time I went to school and started English lessons I already had a familiarity with the language – not necessarily a great deal of competence, but certainly a level of confidence that my peers most probably lacked. For that reason, I loved English lessons from the very beginning.
  • You came to Britain to study for a masters. Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you prepare for it?
    Studying overseas, particularly in an English-speaking country like the UK or US, is not really a ‘choice’ in China. If you have the opportunity, you take it. I studied at New Oriental before going to the UK to do my masters, and again it wasn’t really a choice you made. In my generation and still for young people today, if you’re going to study overseas you go to somewhere like New Oriental to prepare for your journey.
    We are in many ways part of the whole equation. When we were at the Iatefl conference in Glasgow, we met a number of Chinese conference participants, and a British member of our group asked them the question, ‘So did any of you study at New Oriental before coming to the UK to study?’ ‘Of course, all of us,’ they replied. They were surprised that anyone would ask this question.
  • What was the most challenging thing for you about studying abroad?
    One of the biggest challenges for me when studying in the UK was that teachers didn’t tell me everything that would be in my exams. They hinted at what books to read and what sections of the library to look in. This was actually really difficult for me, and I’m sure most Chinese learners have the same experience when they start studying in learning environments like the UK.