college of education | fall 2006
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In a similar spirit of inspiring future generations toward global understanding, University Distinguished Professor Yong Zhao is doing just that through his leadership at the College of Education’s newly established Confucius Institute.
Named after the ancient Chinese teacher and thinker, the institute is one of about 90 such pioneering research-based institutions worldwide, dedicated to teaching the Chinese language through online courses for children and adults, and to promoting a greater understanding of the massive Asian nation’s rich culture and history. It is a partnership with the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, and allows MSU faculty members to work directly with that office and its partner, the Beijing-based China Central Radio and Television University, one of the world’s largest centers of higher education.
As the institute’s high-profile leader, Zhao, 41, who was raised in poverty on a commune farm in China yet persevered to come to MSU 10 years ago, says his efforts are less about economics and industry and more about educational philosophy. A father of two, he hopes to change what he describes as a “Cold War mentality” to educating children through re-examination of cultural practices and use of the best of Eastern and Western models, a marketplace-of-ideas concept that spawns innovation in both nations.
“Globalization means people are in closer contact with each other. If we don’t learn to live together as one people, we are harming our children,” says Zhao, whose passion for unity is palpable. “I’m more worried about how we care about each other—what do we have left for our children?”
To that end, the
institute “will dramatically expand the capacity of schools in Michigan
and nationwide to provide opportunities to learn Chinese language and
culture,” he says. Work is well underway for the online program with
online classes already in progress not only in Michigan but also for
high school students nationwide. In the years ahead, course offerings
for primary school students and adult learners will be phased in.
MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, who joined Qidi Wu, vice minister of education for the People’s Republic of China, in signing the center’s formal agreement at Cowles House in April, calls the joint venture with China an honor for the university.
“The partnership represented by the Confucius Institute is a key component of leading the transformation from land grant to world grant,” Simon says.
Zhao and his colleagues at the institute hope to honor her mandate through exploration of the concept of global citizenship—using technology as a medium to change not only how education is developed but also to open doors to how diverse cultures frame new skills, moral standards and other external issues. This, says Zhao, will ultimately help children from both sides of the world to live with strong tools in an emerging virtual world.
If that sounds a little high-tech, don’t be confused. As much as he is an achiever, Zhao eschews a prevailing kill-and-drill mentality for a certain individuality in learning, meaning some kids are terrific at math and science but for the ones who lean toward art and music, well, then, that’s O.K., too. There is room for creativity, he allows, but we don’t really measure that. Learning a new language is a fabulous entrée to broadening the mind.
“I think education is too much framed as an assessment tool, not enough as a human tool,” Zhao says candidly. “Education should be about enriching. Yet in the striving to be globally competitive economically, we have always worried about our kids making a living and interpreting education as a corporate product. We need to redefine technology with what’s valuable in terms of talent.”
Teaching language is a small part of the dynamic of creativity in that it leads students to think globally as to what they can attain as individuals but also how they can contribute to others. Teaching foreign language also helps in broader ways like helping to bolster national security efforts, Zhao adds, noting that he’s not pushing protectionism but rather collaboration.
“A lot of the jobs of the future will require cross-cultural communication,” he says. “Where a foreign language, is needed, is crucial, there is no turning back on that. China is our largest trading partner right now, so if you want to learn any language Chinese will be a much better bet than any other because there are more users—1.5 billion people.”
can anyone learn Chinese? Certainly, he says, not just children who seem
to lack fear and to inherently soak up new language skills. However,
there aren’t enough teachers of Chinese to keep up with demand. A
College Board analysis found that 2,100 high schools nationwide would
like to offer Chinese language courses-—90 in Michigan alone. But there
are no teachers certified to teach these classes. Only a limited number
of U.S. schools currently offer Chinese and only four universities here
provide teacher certification in it. For those reasons, Zhao says he’s
hopeful the College of Education’s innovative programs in online Chinese
instruction will begin to fill a big need.
“We live in a very different world than even 10 years ago,” he stresses, noting the value of what he describes as “the moral function of education.”
“Today’s children and how we prepare them for that world is most important,” Zhao says. “They must come to understand that our well-being is very much dependent on other’s well-being. My worry is not about economic productivity. It’s how we get along as one people.”
Establishment of the institute is only the latest development in MSU’s efforts to expand its presence in China. In the spring, the university opened a Beijing office.
“In short, the MSU Confucius Institute will be one among many MSU resources for Michigan schools and businesses in Chinese language and culture,” says Jeffrey Riedinger, acting dean of international studies and programs. “Overall, many of our international efforts—including this project—are about helping Michigan students and entrepreneurs be successful globally and also making Michigan an appealing destination for students and entrepreneurs from abroad.”
The Chinese Ministry of Education hopes to open 100 institutes around the world by 2010. An estimated 30 million people around the world now study Chinese as a foreign language. At MSU’s new institute, the mission is well underway, says Zhao, with Chinese language learning materials and Webcasts of Chinese programs as well as a Chinese tutoring service, all online. The tutors, he says, are all native speakers of Chinese. Programming will include business, tourism and beginner-level Chinese.
“I think this is helping address a very pressing need,” Zhao adds. “China is a huge country with a large population, long history and now increasing economic power, but there is a lot of misunderstanding and suspicion of China in the U.S. and vice versa. Both countries seem to be worried about each other as a threat to their national security and interest. The the best national security is to have people understand each other so that there is no animosity.
“Learning about a people’s culture and language is crucial to that understanding. The Confucius Institute is not just about business or about language teaching but about cultural issues and mutual understanding.”
Or, as Confucius
would allow: “I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.”
Angela Barry, Katie Bonne and Betty Wescott are part of a team of Western and Chinese educators working at the new 3eik Kindergarten, a cutting-edge preschool that is a proud example of how MSU is leading education globally and at home.
One of the U.S.-China Center for Educational Excellence’s boldest initiatives, the kindergarten opened its doors in the Chaoyong district of Beijing on Sept. 1, 2005. The kindergarten is unlike any other in the world: a preschool where the pupils experience two cultures, learn in two languages and are taught in two very different educational models. At 3EIk—which stands for explore, experiment and express—children spend half their days immersed in Chinese language classrooms that are infused with Chinese cultural and educational practices. The other half of their days is spent immersed in English language classrooms that are brimming with Western cultural and educational practices.
The school was built by Sun Wah Education Laboratories and funded by entrepreneur Jonathan Choi, chairman of the Hong Kong-based international conglomerate Sun Wah Group, to put into practice an idea brought to him by University Distinguished Professor Yong Zhao.
“It is apparent that both the Chinese knowledge-centered tradition and the American child-centered tradition have their advantages and disadvantages, but you cannot simply integrate one into the other. The best way is perhaps to build a school that offers both,” said Zhao, who proposed the idea to Choi.
Zhao’s proposal resulted in a $5 million donation from the Sun Wah Education Foundation to establish the U.S. China Center for Educational Excellence, whose primary goal is to further develop and test the theory that the merging of two cultures and learning styles creates a more promising classroom.
After a year of intensive work and consulting with both American and Chinese educational experts, a curriculum framework that reflects both traditions was developed and 3eik was started to put the framework into reality. The school was constructed to physically reflect the spirit of the curriculum with Chinese classrooms and American classrooms. For it to better reflect the child-centered, experiential approach of American education, 3eik worked with the Exploratorium, the well-known San Francisco–based children’s science museum, and constructed a hands-on mini-science museum in the school.
To offer the American education experience in China, the school also needs teachers from America. Barry, Bonne and Wescott showed pioneering spirits in their willingness to leave home and family behind for a two-year teaching stint in China. For the past school year, they have been working with their Chinese colleagues Linda Hong and Linda Shen to bring to fruition the vision of a dual-pedagogy, bilingual and bicultural preschool.
experiences for children have been remarkable, the teachers say.
Children and teachers alike have blossomed in this first year. “From my standpoint, it’s been a really rewarding opportunity to learn and grow,” said Ted Prawat, 3eik artist-in-residence. “When I first got here I was trying to adjust to a new culture that is vastly different than my own and, at the same time, I was trying to learn about this new model of education and teach it effectively. So I was constantly learning right along with the kids.”
In the fall of 2006, the initiative moved to two U.S. school districts. Bay City Public Schools and the Lansing School District have partnered with the U.S.-China Center to start three new preschools here in Michigan. These new partnerships offer opportunities for children in Michigan to learn a new language and culture, especially considering that Bay City Public Schools and the Lansing School District have plans to expand the bilingual/bicultural immersion program into the elementary grades starting with kindergarten in the 2007–08 school year, Zhao said.
Already, Zhao has begun to get inquiries from school districts throughout Michigan and the Midwest about opening similar schools. For now, he has resisted. The next step is for the U.S.-China Center to do extensive research to see how the curriculum is working and what is working most effectively to develop students for a globally interconnected world.
For Zhao, the development of the school’s curriculum represents the first step in developing a model of education that is grounded in strong theoretical and research-based ideas that can be successfully implemented around the world.
“So many of the
people who visit the school leave believing that this is the model for
the future of education,” Zhao said. “They have left believing in a
cross-cultural, dual pedagogical approach. The dual pedagogy is key. It
isn’t only about learning the language. The idea is to help students
learn in different styles and learn to adapt to different cultures.”
Although the Confucius Institute is focused on outreach efforts, the U.S.-China Center for Education Excellence at MSU’s College of Education has emerged in recent years as a major center for research on Eastern and Western educational practices.
In nearly three years since its founding, with a $5 million grant from the Hong Kong–based Sun Wah Educational Foundation, the center has moved quickly to engage in innovative, cross-cultural research projects with its Chinese partner institution, Beijing Normal University.
leadership of University Distinguished Professor Yong Zhao, the center
has developed and begun to test Education for Global Citizenship (EGC),
a bilingual, bi-cultural and dual pedagogy education program. The center
successfully completed the curriculum framework and part of related
curriculum materials for the model. The model combines the strengths of
Eastern and Western education to prepare global citizens.
A book synthesizing American research on effective schools is being published by East China Normal University Press. The center co-sponsored the Annual Meeting of the Chinese American Educational Research and Development Association in 2006. In addition, the center has organized two conferences (one in China and one in the U.S.) to bring educational researchers and leaders from both countries to work on significant educational issues facing both.
In the future, Zhao expects the center to complete a number of significant projects that have been ongoing. One of them is the collaborative math and science comparative study with the National Science Foundation–funded initiative Promoting Rigorous Outcomes in Mathematics and Science Education (PROM/SE), which is also based in the college. Researchers there conduct studies that analyze the teaching and learning of math and science in China.
Working with a team of scholars from Beijing Normal University, MSU researchers led by University Distinguished Professor William Schmidt are seeking to understand what students know about science and math and how they achieve a particular level of proficiency. The research is focused on such areas as curriculum, teacher characteristics, learner involvement and school contexts. Already, Beijing Normal University researchers have completed the data collection of a pilot study involving 12,861 participants in 49 schools in Beijing.
The center is also conducting a review and analysis that compares the educational systems of the United States and China. The reports will be compiled into an edited volume, which will seek to address the underlying social, cultural and systemic reasons that drive the differences in American and Chinese educational performance.
The center is also compiling educational terms to create an updated Chinese dictionary. Zhao said that Chinese educational dictionaries are outdated, and the center hopes an updated dictionary will facilitate a clearer understanding of American educational terms for international students wishing to study or better understand the U.S. education system.