Education, Culture, and Climate: My Trip to China

Our team

Our team

In November 2015, I had the unique opportunity (along with 10 educators from New Jersey) to visit China. The purpose of the visit was to study the educational system, explore opportunities to start a language program, and to take in the historic sites.


I learned so much in such a short amount of time. There were so many awesome experiences that it was hard to boil it down to a blog post. I kicked the idea of writing something more extensive, and maybe I will do that if I return and spend more time. I framed this blog post around the most frequent questions I received upon returning.

What was the plane ride like? 

I spent a total of 32 hours on a plane during the trip to China!

I spent a total of 32 hours on a plane during the trip to China!

We flew from Newark, NJ directly to Beijing. This had its positives and negatives. Fortunately, we didn’t have any layovers, but on the other hand, we were on the plane for 14 straight hours! This was the longest time I was ever on plane and it was a test of patience. I don’t think I did very well on the test, and I had a lot of trouble sleeping.


14 hours is a very long time to be in a confined area 30,000 miles above the ground. As I scanned the plane, most people didn’t seem to have the same trouble. Most people were sleeping. I was able to do a little bit of reading and watched a movie. We flew over the North Pole, and we saw ice for miles and miles!


Flying within China was better than expected. Our trip from Beijing to Changchun took a little over two hours and since I had already experienced a long flight it was quite pleasant. I was a seasoned pro at that point!


When we were flying from Changchun back to Beijing, I had an interesting experience. Somehow I made it through customs quicker than everyone else but at the time I didn’t know it. As I entered, I scanned the seats for a familiar face from the trip. To my dismay, I didn’t see anyone. I double checked my ticket and even asked the stewardess if I was on the correct plane. She said I was and asked if everything was OK. I told her I must have been separated from group. After what seemed like an eternity, members from our group began boarding the plane. That was a big relief.


On the way back to the US, I was much more relaxed. The plane was packed so there weren’t many opportunities to move around the plane. I was definitely tired from the trip but I couldn’t sleep. I was also trying to front load the jet lag that was inevitable so I didn’t really want to sleep. I ended up binge watching a bunch of episodes of House of Cards which helped pass the time.


What were the schools like? 

Learning about the morning line ups from Cindy

Learning about the morning line ups from Cindy our guide

Throughout the course of the trip we visited 7 schools ranging from Elementary to College. Due to the size of the country, and how crowded the cities are, class sizes ranged from 30 to 50 and school’s had thousands of students enrolled. Although this may seem large (and it certainly is if you look through a personalized education lens) but for the current delivery of content it makes a lot of sense. Most teachers are positioned at the front of the class, and they are usually on some type of platform. Unlike the United States, teachers in China are revered and respected. Teachers spend limited time disciplining students or implementing classroom management. The stakes are so high for the students, it is extremely important for them to do the best they can on the exams.


Since the Chinese tend to value to the group as opposed to the individual, the whole class delivery is in line with their core values. One of the professors told us that the Chinese “dream” is to build a better, stronger China. Therefore, the kids in the classes are committed to learning the material with little emphasis on individualism. In fact, in one classroom we visited the teacher didn’t call the students by their names, but rather by “boy” or “girl.”


As much as things are different, they are the same

As much as things are different, they are the same

The schools in China, in many ways, are very similar to the schools in the US. There is a difference from the top level schools and those that are not. Results of the examination determine the middle school, high school and college that a student will attend. Obviously, not everyone can attend the elite schools and they have to settle for other options. This doesn’t happen in America either.


One option that wealthy Chinese parents explore is the “international” school. These schools are affiliated with universities in the US, Canada, England or other European countries.  The curriculum allows for more creativity and personalized learning with a goal to have the kids attend college abroad. It is unclear to me if these schools have earned the respect that is so coveted in the Chinese culture. My sense is that they are not.


International schools place a significant emphasis on the arts. We watched several intense dance classes that were similar to an expensive dance studio in the states. The instructors were intense and either kept time with sticks, drums or even a cane. The dancers were mostly girls and they were extremely focused throughout the classes. There was also a lot of emphasis placed on athletics at the international schools. Kids played basketball and soccer whenever they had the opportunity.


Most schools we visited had a residential component. Kids in elementary through high school tend to stay on campus for school. As the students progress in their grade level and the academic demands increase, they spend any free time they have studying. School is literally a full-time job in China.


What is Special Education like in China? 

Special education students in Changchun

Special education students in Changchun

When we visited Changchun University Special Education Division, I thought it was a college designed to prepare teachers to teach students with special needs. It was actually special education students in a class learning about massage, Braille and art.


The first class we went in was a bit of a culture shock. There were about 50 special education students learning about acupressure points. There were kids (late teens early 20s) that had all types of learning disabilities. Yet, they were experiencing a teaching style that was very similar to the one that we saw earlier. There was no differentiation. 


Next we went to a room where blind kids were learning about massage. We got a brief introduction and then they were looking for volunteers. I immediately raised my hand and ended up getting about a 30 minute massage. Eventually, everyone in our group got a message. It was viewed as good practice for the students, and after the long plane ride, we needed it.


After we finished our massages, we went to the Art Department. There were about 15 kids painting these amazing renditions of famous works of art. They were all hearing impaired. We talked a little bit to the art director and he told us that they put the finished products in galleries, send them to business and other places who want art to display. Then we toured the actually gallery and saw what had been established for the past 20 years as they established the college. They were so proud of what they have accomplished and it is truly amazing. It really hit me that they are educating the special education students on a deeper level than we are.


I am not sure how students with learning disabilities are treated within the K-12 system. Since the class sizes are big and there is such an emphasis on the exams, my sense is that very little it done to make “accommodations.” In some of the larger classrooms, there were teacher aides or student teachers that gravitated to students in the back of the class. This is certainly a topic that needs more research.

Describe the Chinese Universities you visited

Listening to a lecture on the Chinese educational system

Listening to a lecture on the Chinese educational system

We visited several colleges and universities. Our college tour started at Jilin University’s library. It was mammoth and packed bright and early on a Saturday morning. Of course we discussed how American university libraries were probably vacant on the weekend mornings because the kids were out partying the night before. I asked our tour guide if the college kids ever have fun and partied like their American counterparts. She said that they did but it was on such a different level. The stakes are so high and so much is riding on their placement in the university that they would be better off studying. The library was at least 5 floors and everywhere we went there were kids studying,  reading or on the computer.

 As we were walking around the library, someone pointed out that the students were using laptops that had the English keyboard. We all talked among ourselves about how that could possibly be and why they didn’t have a keyboard with Chinese characters? That is because there are so many Chinese characters. If they built a keyboard with all of the characters it would be extremely large. So they use a transcription method called “ping-ing.” I am still uncertain how it works but after two different people explained it looks like when we are trying to spell a word and the computer attempts to finish it. Then they select the Chinese word or words to insert into the text.


We had the opportunity to hear a professor lecture on the Chinese educational system. It was less about education and more about the cultural and economic underpinnings of the country. He gave us a brief history lesson, and talked about the Cultural Revolution and how much the country has progressed since the 1970s. During the lecture, I asked about the impact of poverty on education, and he seemed to understand where I was coming from (rich areas do better than poor). He felt our economic problems were easy to solve. The Chinese rich and poor are vastly different and the people who live out west are unbelievably poor and extremely disconnected from the entire system of expansion in the cities.


What is a teacher’s day like in China? 

The teacher is on the stage in China

The teacher is on the stage in China

While in Changchun, we got the opportunity to talk with an English teacher who went over her day. She gets to school around 7:00 AM and stays until about 5:00 PM. She teaches two courses that are 40 minutes each and the rest of the time is for preparation and grading papers. It was similar to a college professor’s schedule in the US. She said that they did have some issues with discipline and there were times when they had to write up kids, or have parent conferences.


We saw very few principals on the trip. There were some vice principals or deans but rarely a principal. I asked about that and they said that it was because they were busy and also some of them do not know English. I asked about administrative preparation and our guide said it was a little hard to explain. In order to be a principal, you would have to go through the bureau, and there is an exam and a vote.


 What was the most fun part of the trip? 

USA vs. China in Basketball

USA vs. China in Basketball

There were so much about the trip that was fun! First, the other educators I went with all made each other laugh. We developed a camaraderie that made the trip enjoyable. During our visits to the schools I tried to have as much fun as I normally would have at my own school. I participated as much as possible in the activities. 


In fact we went to an international school that had an arena where the kids had access to a basketball court, and track that was bigger than most colleges. Glenn, Steve and I asked if we could play basketball against the kids and they obliged. Considering we were playing in slacks, dress shirts and dress shoes, I think we held our own. I will say that the kids were skilled and it was obvious that they play a lot of basketball. I think someone had mentioned that a graduate of the school actually made the Chinese national team. After the game we took pictures with the kids and thanked them for their time. It was really fun and a good workout!


What will you remember the most?

That is me in the background of Glenn's picture.... exhausted!

That is me in the background of Glenn’s picture…. exhausted!

The one thing we did that far surpassed everything else was the visit to the Great Wall. I am not sure if it was the shear magnitude of the wall or the physical requirements necessary to ascend as high as we could, but it was a thrilling experience. The Great Wall has such history and significance in Chinese culture. I only wished that we would have spent more time on it. As we climbed the Wall, we met people from around the world. We met people from Mongolia, Nepal, Thailand, US, and Germany.

When we finally reached the furthest part of the Wall we could in the time allowed, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It was not an easy hike, and we probably traversed several thousand steps along the way. Going back down the wall wasn’t an easy feat either.


How was the food?


This is a goose head. No one ate it!

I thought the food was delicious. I am not a very adventurous eater (and I never eat seafood) and I was able to enjoy so much food. I felt that the food was always fresh and healthy. I struggled with the chopsticks but kept using them despite my struggles. Most of the food was very similar to the Chinese food I have experienced in the United States.

I watched our Chinese tour guides and interpreters during our meals. They didn’t really drink a lot of liquids during meals and if they did it was usually just hot water. They kept eating throughout the entire meal whereas we would usually eat too much and then slow down. There was not much dairy in their diet. I am a coffee drinker, and I really missed my daily cups of coffee. Whenever I was able to get my hands on a Starbucks, I took advantage of it no matter the cost.



What is going on with the Smog?

We were there 10 days and I only saw the sun twice. The first day we were in Changchun it was sunny, and the next time I saw it was on the flight to Beijing. The smog was everywhere, and it is a problem. While in Changchun I felt like I was camping in a city. I was told that the smell was a combination of the industrial manufacturing and the burning of corn stalks.


The smell here makes me I feel like I’m camping in a city.


In Beijing, it was not the odor, but more of a blanket of constant smog laying over the city. Our guides admitted that the smog is a big problem in China. They indicated that the people who wear the masks are not protecting themselves from the smog as much as they are making a statement. It is clear to me that until this gets addressed, China will struggle to get visitors.


Since you are always on Social Media, how did you survive with everything being blocked? 

I am a firm believer in the power of Social Media. It has transformed me as a principal. With that said, I was only in China for 10 days. I didn’t get an international plan on my phone and I didn’t use a VPN to access blocked sites. I wanted to disconnect from Social Media to engage in the experience. China does a have an interesting app that is not blocked called WeChat. It appeared that everyone in China is on it. You are able to text, call, video conference, upload pictures etc.


In talking with our tour guides and translators, the general consensus is that sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google will eventually be opened. Many of them had spent time in the US so they have accessed these Social Media sites and have seen the benefits. The Chinese government will ultimately decide when and if these sites are able to be unblocked.


What was your biggest takeaway? 

As much as things are different, they are the same

That hat will keep me warm!

That hat will keep me warm!

I’ve always believed that it important to travel and to see other cultures. I learned a valuable lesson while I was there. Despite what I might think of their educational system, culture or even environmental climate, it is really none of my concern. I think too often we travel and judge. I really tried to take my preconceived notions and cultural biases and put them on the back burner.


I was impressed with the Chinese knowledge of our culture and language. I think we would benefit from returning this learning and integrating a more global perspective in our educational system. As someone who professes to have 24/7 access to a global online system, there is so much I do not know about the world.


Want more information? 

Here is a link to a podcast I did about my experience

Here is a video I put together for my students and teachers 

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