Teaching at a Chinese university has confounded all of my expectations of what teaching students would be like. Below is my guide to some of the major features of Chinese students I have encountered!
1. Hands up Get Shot or A History in Humiliation
Chinese possesses phrases specifically designed to counter ideas such as “The early bird catches the worm” “Nothing ventured nothing gained”. These phrases say instead, “The first to stand up is to first to be knocked down”. Cheery.
This attitude prevails amongst students and it can make teaching very difficult, especially when you want to ask questions or you want them to volunteer ideas. For instance, if you want to ask a simple question to check or elicit understanding you will (normally) be met with the same blank wall as if you asked them to discuss the value of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Most likely you will give in and pick someone and then you will hit the history of humiliation which contributes to their “shyness”.
All students around the world must have the fear of looking “stupid” in front of classmates and teachers – but here the fear seems more universal and more debilitating. I have worked with children with various specific learning differences who suffered from low self-esteem and they were, save a few individuals, more confident than the students I teach here.
Partially this comes from particularly negative experiences – one student told me how an old teacher of hers would make students stand at the back of the class if they got an answer wrong and as we know making mistakes, famously, has absolutely nothing to do with learning.
I do not really know how to deal with this. Knowing your students helps, but takes time. Currently I watch for eye contact – if someone knows the answer and wants to speak normally they will pointedly look at you. I also try to highlight that mistakes a vital part of learning, but next semester I will try to more rigorously train them in putting hands up and answering, especially when checking answers.
This is one of the hardest things to see, when a student red-faced and stammering struggles answering a question which you see as basically inconsequential.
2. “No why”
This is a quote from a friend’s classes of 10 years olds. When he asks them a question they will answer, when he asks why the answer is they respond: no why. Not that they refuse to give an answer: there simply is no why. This could be of course the wisdom of children except it is common in students as well.
For example, if you teach Point Evidence Explain (PEE) they can get the first two easily, but they often fail to see a difference between the evidence and the explanation. They will tend to see making a statement as the same as proving it. Although they often achieve it individually it is, unfortunately, not a cliché that Chinese students lack critical thinking skills. They are not taught them at any point and it can be difficult to adapt to this massive difference in outlook.
Obviously this is really too difficult to solve in a year (or less) with any class; the best one can do is provide more structured activities which force critical thinking.
This leads to difficulties if you are doing more abstract tasks, tasks which require explicit critical thinking, or something requiring some imaginative reasoning. Often if you are unprepared you will hope your intriguing activity will produce some good discussion but instead you will get summaries and repetitions of whatever point of view you gave.
3. Teacherrrr Gooood or They schedule study here
This greeting for teachers is droned out at the beginning of class “laoooshhhhi haoooooooo”. And it reflects everybody’s attitudes towards education here, that the teacher is the source, the students the receptacles. Classrooms nearly always consist of desks bolted to the ground in rows facing the board and the teacher who normally never leaves the microphone by her desk. The ironic thing is that, at least in my uni, there is not a lot of respect for the teachers – often there is open disrespect. It is very different from the awe students feel for lecturers in the West. As such you might often be a bit surprised by their attitude to you – oh, and they will talk in class.
The teacher sets homework, some exercises from a book, which is often never returned. The students live in dorms of 6 people in a little room with a curfew of 10:30pm in which all electricity is shut off – lights, internet, computers. Personally I remember doing my best work at about 3-4 in the morning when the competing chemicals in my body were just about level. So they gain little independence in living skills.
They are not taught to be researchers to the extent that they have scheduled study time every week where they have to be in a classroom, attendance is taken, and then they have to sit there and study. Why? No Why.
All of this leads to students who often have poor organisational and communications skills and whose only response to a problem is to stare blankly at it. You will find yourself running up against this as well, in class and out of it – if you don’t tell them to do something in a particular way they will not do it or do something bizarre and unrelated.
4. Plagiarism/Academic Integrity
One of the results of their homework being often pointless, their inability to respond critically to a problem and their inability to make mistakes leads to plagiarism. Plagiarism is not condemned here, there is no system of Turnitin or any equivalent and most of them are happy to plagiarise. If you do not want them to do this, and I think for most graduates the brand of the sin of plagiarism is indelibly marked on our hearts, then you have to explain the whole range of what counts as copying and that it is very easy to check if they have copied. Also be strict if you set these rules, if you say it will fail – fail it (although you could give a chance to re-submit).
If you want to check if they’ve copied something type it into baidu.com. Often they’re quite good at copying from lots of different places to make it look like they haven’t copied. If you suspect they have – biggest indication is the English is perfect – try a few different bits.
Begging. Fortunately I have only had one experience of a student begging me to change their grade after the exam, although it ended badly when I said I couldn’t. But I have been reliably informed by some pretty high up people that begging to get grades changed is a thing here. Parents will come and weep and prostrate themselves before department heads and even the principal until their child’s grades are changed.
You will normally get some pleading though – for instance I had a student who emailed me saying “Mr Jonny _ I am hoping that you can pass me for this course. I want to pass but don’t want to study. I have already failed this class three times.”
Or they can be quite two faced, a friend for example had a student who all semester has sat on their phone and left class early. Last week she reminded the class that if they were not present for the whole class they would not get the attendance grade. On the QQ group (this awful instant messenger which all students get dumped into) this student was moaning in Chinese that he never understands “her when she speaks” (in mandarin, you can translate on it). She repeated solely for his benefit, that if you did not attend the whole class you did not get attendance credit. A few minutes later she gets a private message from him “Dear Teacher Samantha I love your classes so much, you are my favourite teacher…”
5. “Oh um, sorry, teacher Jonny? You’re coat is on fire.”
As I understand it students are not used to contradicting their teachers. Therefore when you are making a massive mistake – when you are teaching last week’s class, when they already know everything you’re saying, the class next week is a holiday or whatever – it will be in the changed, slightly fearful, look in their eyes that you know something is wrong, never their words.
This, coupled with the fear of making mistakes, means they will only rarely ask for help. For example, I had a student who had to write an essay for me which asked them to choose a keyword from the literature class, explain it and use a text to examine the idea. I had a lovely student who chose the word “state”, the first paragraph of her essay:
“Bhutan is located in southern Asia, is a landlocked country in the eastern section of the southern slope of Himalaya Range, bordering the northwest, North and China Tibet, at the junction of the South and East, South and west respectively, India tin GEIL, West Bengal, Chinese hill, a total area of 38394 square meters of 1000.”
6. Do you know Philip?
You know how it’s a sign of underlying bigotry if you think that “minority” people know each other? Well, if you’re lucky enough not to have experienced this before, you’ll get to share in that feeling too. Wherever you go there will (most likely) have been another foreigner, one who everybody knows and refers to. This despicable example of humanity will ingratiate itself into all aspects of your life until you wish it had never been born; however you need not worry for, just as it is for you, their affection for Philip is fleeting and will be forgotten before long.
7. “Pardon?” = 5 seconds to TOTAL ANHILLATION
Part of their difficulty to answer questions is their inability to repeat themselves. Sometimes it is hard to hear them as they nervously whisper at a square of lino by their feet; unfortunately though, they have been conditioned to hear the phrases “pardon,” “sorry, what?” and “can you say that again?” as: “You terrible failure as a human, imperfection, IMPERFECTION I SAY, has blighted your initial response, and I, in my totally reasonable and all encompassing fury – which teeters on the edge of totally obliterating your future and the future of your family -, demand repetition which meets the angelic standard of English which is the natural feature of Teaching College English Writing Unit 2”.
8. Can you do me a favour? :):):):):)
If a student wants you to do something, they will tend to start with this question. They won’t say what the favour is without being asked, and even when they do say they will more than likely not give you the full details of what is involved and start springing changes on you at the last minute.
Also if you are going to say no, say no – they filter any answer like maybe as “yes” so be firm, they can be very eager to persuade.
9. Maybe you want a Chinese friend?
Forming friendships with students is easy and fun, the best way to learn more about the culture. You will meet so many people you will be bound to find people with whom you click. However, not all students are not waiting for that effect, often they are looking for someone to practise English with. That is when people will start talking to you even though you’re clearly busy, or will end their monologue at you with offers to help or, maybe you want a Chinese friend?
If you want to meet these ones great, just remember that often they want a tutor, and think that your going rates are a bowl of noodles, and also that acquaintance and friendships are carried out in very different ways. Other students will stay firmly in a teacher zone, calling you things like “teacher Jonny” and having a level of formality which protects both of you from the potential pain of having relationships with completely different expectations.
10. Oh, because you didn’t reply…
As far as I can tell, Chinese use instant messaging differently, they use it in the way in which MSN messenger was used (if you’re old enough) – i.e. as a conversation. Therefore the perfectly normal behaviour of waiting a day to reply to a message is seen as rude – and honestly, they can take it really badly. Especially if they have really strayed from the “teacher” zone they can become clingy, needy, and almost aggressive in their demands on your time.
11. You’re so handsome…
No, you’re not. It’s just a way for them to try and be friendly – they’re not flirting with you. If you like the attention smile and nod, if you’re shy smile and change the topic.