2008 Student-Faculty Fellows: University Of New Hampshire
Early Childhood Education in China Today:
Exploring the Experience of Young Children in Rural and Urban Preschools
Mentor: Dora Wu Chen
Students: Amy Martin, Jacqueline Maude, Emilee Minkwitz, Jennifer Mongelli
The main purpose of this collaborative field research project was to learn about what early childhood education is like in China today through exploring the experiences of young children in a variety of settings. A secondary purpose was to use the experience of being foreigners in a country so different from what students know in order to help them gain a better understanding of what it means to be different; a minority. The team visited a total of 16 preschools in three cities in over 3 1/2 weeks’ time. We interviewed teachers and administrators at the schools we visited. We also had the opportunity to be participant observers in a Beijing school for over a week. There, students were able to gain a deeper understanding of the daily routines and experiences of the children and the teachers, learning from interactions with children in informal story and outdoor play times. They also had the opportunity to plan and lead whole group and center time activities. In our group, Jennifer Mongelli focused on the influence of Western approaches to early education. Amy Martin looked at the kinds of activities teachers offered children. Emilee Minkwitz looked at how children respond to the activities they are provided. Jacqueline Maude looked at what effective teaching means to early childhood teachers in China. We plan to consolidate these observations into a manuscript for an international early childhood education journal. The students all gained knowledge about teaching young children that they could not have from coursework and books alone. As a result of this opportunity to bring undergraduates to China, I have decided to explore possibilities for organizing study abroad courses in China and other Asian countries for our students in future years. We greatly appreciated the warm welcome we received from each of the schools we visited in Hohhot, Tianjin, and Beijing. Above all, THANK YOU, ASIANetwork and the Freeman Foundation for this unforgettable opportunity.
My research focused on the kinds of activities children have in Chinese preschools. I noticed in all the schools we visited that there are endless choices of activities offered to children in the course of a school day; regular whole physical exercise, group roller skating, swimming, dance and Orf music lessons, individual piano lessons, as well as traditional subject matter. The Montessori Method of teaching is apparent in many of the schools we visited. In addition, there is significant emphasis on children learning the English language. In many schools, foreign teachers are hired to teach English alongside local Chinese teachers with background in English literature or language, although not necessarily in teacher education. Opportunities for structured as well as free play during the course of the day are also evident to varying extents among the schools we visited. Administrators and teachers in these schools are open and excited about offering children new learning opportunities and materials.
Several points stood out vividly in my mind as I think back on our school visits. First are the images of the children we saw when they were excited. When engaged in play-based activities, their faces lit up and their laughter was infectious. This made me realize that across the world children are really not very different at all. Second, this experience placed me completely out of my element and for the first time in my life, I became the minority. I now have a new sensitivity for the children that enter a school from a different country with little to no native language ability. Finally, the importance placed on fostering children’s understanding of their culture, especially in Inner Mongolian schools, was much different from that in the United States. Consequently, I wondered about how I, as an American teacher, can incorporate understanding of U.S. culture in my classroom so that our traditions are acknowledged and celebrated.
The opportunity to conduct undergraduate research in China was an incredibly rewarding experience for me. From what we observed and from what the teachers from the different schools have shared with us in our after observation interviews, a set of core common beliefs about what constitutes an effective teacher emerged for me: patience, passion, commitment to the safety and well being of children, and love and respect for them. In addition, effective teachers need to be reflective practitioners. I was intrigued by the heavy emphasis that some school administrators placed on teachers’ engagement in reflections on their practice. Although local second language (English) teachers in most of these schools we visited have degrees in English literature or English, not in early childhood education or teacher preparation, classroom teachers come from 3 or 4 year teacher preparation colleges with specific training in early childhood education and hold early childhood teaching certificates. Overall, teachers in the Chinese preschools have higher and more specific qualifications than preschool teachers in the U.S.
This experience has given me the rare opportunity to view teaching from a different perspective through immersion, even if only briefly, enhancing my knowledge base about the teaching and learning process. The experience of being totally out of my element in China has reinforced for me the importance of enabling children to feel comfortable, respected and included, so they will feel safe to explore different cultures and be proud of their own individuality. It has made me even more curious and eager to explore new places and new cultures, and has reinforced my commitment to providing a classroom environment that fosters children’s curiosity about the world and a quest for knowledge. Above all, it has inspired me to keep on learning a growing as a teacher. This was a once in a lifetime experience and I am thankful for this opportunity. I wish to thank the Freeman Foundation and ASIANetwork for this unforgettable learning experience.
As a team, we focused on the preschool education of young children in Beijing and Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. Individually, I concentrated on how children learn, attempting to see things through their eyes. Within the various schools we visited, I noticed many similarities to children I had worked with in America, including similarities in temperament, personality, friendships, and conflicts. This helped me understand that the nature of children is comparable across the world; their behavior seems to be highly dependent upon expectations placed on them by teachers, parents, the immediate community, and the larger culture they live in. I will bring these realizations with me as I begin to build my own classroom, remaining acutely aware of my influence on children’s development. This experience has also enabled me to be a keener observer. I will continue to consider how children learn by carefully observing and documenting their experience, not overlooking who they are, so I can understand their perspective. Travelling and learning about other cultures is a passion of mine, and to have this opportunity to combine traveling and education was amazing. I have also gained a broader and deeper understanding of family culture. Children and families on the street were pieces to the puzzle as I wondered how home life and family expectations melded with school life. This opportunity was an amazing way to conclude my undergraduate years and mark the start of my career. I thank the ASIANetwork and the Freeman Foundation for giving me this opportunity.
I focused my research on the influence of Western approaches to early education in Chinese preschools. I learned how Chinese preschools have adopted many Western approaches to teaching, ranging from Montessori to play-based programs and the use of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences in the Chinese preschool curriculum, and was amazed at the emphasis placed on the teaching of English in all the schools we visited. The two most common English curriculums used in the schools we visited are published in the United Kingdom: Playway to English and Fingerprints. I found myself marveling at the extent of influence of Western approaches to early education in these preschools, at the various ways children responded to the different approaches to teaching, as well as how committed the teachers and administrators are to providing the best education for the children.
Most unexpectedly, I have developed a stronger understanding of what it means to be a minority. In my undergraduate coursework, I learned how to work respectfully with minorities in our classrooms, enabling children to feel accepted and welcomed. I realize now that I had no idea what it actually feels like to be a minority. I began thinking about how it must be as a young child, who has not yet acquired the social skills needed to break cultural barriers, to suddenly walk into a new classroom in a new city or country. As a teacher, I began to think about how important it is to overcome the cultural barrier and create an open window of communication with the children and teachers in the schools and in the community. Not only was I a minority, but I also did not speak the language. As a participant observer in the classrooms, I felt helpless and stressed as I tried to understand what was going on and to participate in the on-going activities. I learned that messages are easily lost in translation. As a teacher, I wondered how I can develop a system that will help children learn and feel accepted and included in large group settings. I realize that a large amount of patience and understanding are needed, and although language barriers in teaching pose big challenges, they can be worked through with time and effort.