This month we continued our association with the China Care Fund in a visit to Ping An in Xining, Qinghai Province close to the border with Gansu and Xinjiang.
Desperately cold in winter, surrounded by the Tian Shan mountain range, dry as English humour, and civilized: the people are so calm and well-mannered it beggars belief. This trip was not to be the minus 16 experienced in the visit in December and we left expecting some temperate and comfortable weather. The day after we arrived it snowed.
The drive from Central to the Shenzhen airport was smooth, calm and enriched by the presence of Sister Agnes who updated us on the latest developments with the courses we had organized, and on her continued habit of rising at 5, meditating and practicing Shaolin Kung Fu. All before breakfast.
The Oxford Online Placement Test, which we were using to clarify for ourselves and the teachers what their language skills might be, had fallen victim to the software systems at the school having been updated with the exception of the Flash Player we needed for the test. One of the teachers at the school fixed this and, we had moved to our next step – the test at three o’clock on the day we were to arrive. We were five and a half hours late.
The trip from Shenzhen had been perfect for a pair in need of some sleep (the delay was an unexpected bonus) and ideal for some catching up on work: Agnes on translation and I (Frank) on various projects. Some lack of precision in the packing meant my Chinese adaptors were stowed in the checked baggage so when my laptop and phones died there was plenty of time to reflect on the adage that the secret to a well-planned life is to expect the unexpected.
We arrived in Ping An to be met by Allen and Mr Xie (who had arrived earlier to meet us and returned home to wait out the delay) who with characteristic and enviable equanimity drove us to the hotel on an extended trip necessitated by an accident on the highway and then waited till they were sure we had checked in and had everything we needed, before they finally drove home.
Monday morning was crisp and clear, and after the prepared for coffee (I bring my own and a cotton sieve) we were taken by Mr Xie to the school to observe our first lesson of the day. It was such a delight to see a class of 56 attentive, biddable students doing what they had to without any need for the teacher to ‘manage’ the class. It reminds me of the conclusion Kwesting Lu announced after questions on Chinese students’ successes academically: it’s the culture. And so true. If your attitude to study is formed by an engrained belief in the benefit it brings, you will work hard and achieve.
Out the window of the teachers’ room you can see you can see the brown of the landscape, and the snow covered mountain scape in the distance. In the ‘field’, some 500 meters from the school I saw thousands of students in unison doing running exercises followed by practice of Tai Chi. Around the school there is freshly worked earth with little or no obvious activity to create it, except when the students are removing rocks as part of their efforts to beautify the grounds and help the trees grow. In the near distance lies the outline of a new Great Wall, an ambitious tourism venture to attract hordes of visitors and celebrate Chinese culture. A new Great Wall in a land that lives in its history. No one came.
Our next morning was galvanized by an ambitious effort to make a video of a teacher demonstrating the effect on thinking and language use of questioning techniques with a class of 58 who had never previously engaged in any form of meaningful communication in English. It was a brilliant example in the sense that no greater display could have been made of what needed to be done to blend exam and acquisition needs in a classroom environment. What became obvious is that teachers do not ask communicatively driven questions: they ask questions to get a response which they then evaluate (‘good’, ‘very good’, ‘well done’). Students naturally assume that the language is for the purposes of display and not for communication. It is very rare for a teacher to interact with students in a way that could resemble natural discourse, and the consequence is that the students (not having received models of discourse) simply do not know how to engage in meaningful language use. Any attempt (without a suitable model) to have students develop language competence through verbally wrestling with each other on text meaning to get better ‘answers’ and better scores is doomed: comparable to using the breathing practice in smoking to make you fit.
Our big afternoon was all the teachers doing the OOPT followed by an introduction to the Cengage ELTeach course on Professional Knowledge. The OOPT went smoothly and after the introduction on course content, approach and assessment the teachers went off to their desks to win the battle of studying ELTeach and teaching classes of 58 students. They will win, of course, and when they come to HK for training it will be a celebration of the challenge to educate themselves and their students in an exam culture in which exam outcomes (language accuracy) are at odds with the fundamental drivers for language competence in the real world. A big enough contradiction to cause a lot of teachers to give up and focus on the exams while struggling mightily to make language competence appear relevant in the students’ lives.
I left Ping An on Tuesday evening (in Mr Xie’s car, accompanied by the indefatigable Agnes) feeling I wanted to return to this great city of cultured people and wonderful food. At the airport the coffee was ordinary and the flight was late, but this time I had a charged battery, a novel to read, pictures to look at, things to plan and a blog to write. Kind of what I had expected.