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Even though the process of teaching a foreign language to students in high schools across the world is supposed to be ideologically neutral, this does not appear to be the actual case. The reason for this is that, as practice indicates, such a process cannot be discussed outside of what happened to be the essence of the dominant socio-cultural discourse in a particular country where it takes place.
In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while comparing the currently deployed methodological approaches for teaching the English language in senior secondary schools in China, to the ones that are being used to teach the Chinese language in Australian senior secondary schools. While identifying the qualitative characteristics of both national-based curricula, I will also outline what should be deemed the main obstacles in the way of ensuring the pedagogical effectiveness of teaching a foreign language to Chinese and Australian senior secondary students.
EFL curriculum in China
When it comes to discussing the specifics of how the English language is being taught to the mentioned category of students in China, one must take into consideration: the discursive legacy of Confucianism in this country, and the historical aspects of China’s socio-economic and cultural development since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Even though the English language in China became institutionalized (as one of the foreign languages to be taught in schools and universities) at the beginning of the 20th century, the establishment of the all-national EFL curriculum took place in the late fifties. Having been heavily influenced by the Soviet/Russian model of pedagogy, the curriculum’s guiding principles include:
- Placement of emphasis on the development of writing and reading (rather than communicative) skills.
- Deployment of the deductive approach to teaching grammar: “Students are given the grammar rules and examples, are told to memorize them, and then are asked to apply the rules to other examples” (Rao, 2013, p. 35).
- The assumption that students must provide formally accurate answers to the questions concerned with the practical application of grammar/syntax rules.
- Reliance on the teacher-centered teaching paradigm.
In its turn, this partially explains why up until the early eighties, at least half of the academic time in the secondary schools’ English classes used to be spent on prompting students to memorize English texts by heart – regardless of whether the former understood them or not. According to Yu (2013), “Texts were committed to memory, with the aid of liberal physical encouragement and much noise. When successfully mastered, they were recited by the individual student, back to his teacher, facing the class” (p. 42). It is understood, of course, that this was naturally encouraging students to think of the English language as just about anything, but the practically useful medium of international communication.
It must be noted that the earlier outlined principles, reflected by the Chinese teachers’ willingness to encourage students to spend long hours memorizing texts in English, were thoroughly consistent with the fact that the discursive legacy of Confucianism never ceased exerting a powerful effect on the educational domain in China, throughout the millennia. The Communist revolution of 1949 did very little to change the situation, in this respect, “Emphasis on text memorization can be said to be historically rooted in the Chinese tradition in education, for it is associated with the Confucian educational philosophy that exalts and worships ‘established text’” (Jin & Cortazzi, 2002, p. 57).
In full accordance with the Confucian legacy, most Chinese teachers and students continue to think of education in terms of a privilege, which presupposes the appropriateness of using a teacher-centered/authoritarian approach to teaching foreign languages in the classroom.
Up until comparatively recently, the curriculum’s main objective was to contribute to the secondary students’ overall intellectual development. By learning the English language, they were expected to grow more familiar with the ways of the Western world, which in turn was supposed to come in handy within the context of how these students indulge in analytical thinking. However, very little attention used to be paid to whether the acquired linguistic proficiency, on the part of secondary students, would come to represent any utilitarian value for them.
The logic behind such a conceptualization of the learning process’s actual goal had to do with the assumption that the opportunity for graduates to take practical advantage of their knowledge of English would be severely limited. As Yang (2006) pointed out, “For English to be used, it generally takes a motivated community, the right tasks, and appropriate settings. Unfortunately, these conditions seem to have been met only in certain settings in China’s key metropolitan “centers (p. 7).
Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that even as recently, as through the mid-eighties, it used to be considered something rather extraordinary if a secondary school graduate possessed a moderate command of the English language. According to Wang (2007), “A large-scale national survey was conducted on secondary school English teaching in 1985. It found that most secondary school graduates were unable to use even very simple language to express themselves after almost 900 hours of English instruction” (p. 90).
Nevertheless, as China’s economy continued to grow, it was becoming increasingly apparent to officials from the country’s Ministry of Education that the conceptual approach to teaching English in Chinese high schools had to be readjusted to correlate with the newly emerged socio-economic circumstances. In its turn, this established the objective preconditions for the adoption of the New English Curriculum Standard/NECS (introduced through the early 2000s) by the growing number of high schools in China. As Liu (2016) noted, “The central idea behind NECS is that the best way to teach grammatical structures is not to teach them directly but to engage learners’ attention on the meaning or message” (p. 78).
NECS is based on the assumption that to prove effective; the learning process must be highly interactive – something that, in turn, calls for the adoption of the student-centered paradigm for teaching the English language in China’s high schools. By being exposed to the NECS-based studying strategies, students are expected to grow emotionally comfortable with perceiving this language as the practical instrument of communication (Sun, 2013).
However, the adoption of NECS has been widely criticized on account of this standard’s being excessive ‘,westernized,’ which makes it ill-suited to be deployed within the classroom-setting of an ordinary high school in China. What represents yet another challenge, within the context of how NECS is being implemented, is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Chinese English-language teachers have never traveled outside of China. In its turn, this does not only make it highly unlikely for them to feel at ease while communicating with students in English but also leaves only a few prerequisites for the learning process to be less teacher-centered.
Therefore, despite the fact that during the recent decade, the EFL curriculum in China has grown much more constructivist, as compared to what it used to be the case in the past, it continues to remain essentially traditionalist. As Zhang and Liu (2014) pointed out, “The approval of constructivist ideas does not prevent the teachers from adhering to traditional beliefs, especially those in memorisation and drill. All the interview participants require their students to memorise vocabulary, sentences or even texts. This practice is still a basic element of English class in Chinese secondary schools” (p. 195). There are many reasons to believe that such a state of affairs with teaching the English language to senior secondary students in China is going to persist into the future.
CFL curriculum in Australia
Although the Chinese language has been taught in Australian high schools ever since 1950, it was not up until the early eighties that it became officially included in the country’s foreign language curriculum. The main reason behind this development had to do with the fact that, as of this time, it started to become increasingly clear to Australian governmental officials that the key to Australia’s continual economic growth was concerned with creating the prerequisites for the country’s economy to take advantage of the exponential expansion of the Chinese (Asian) market of goods and services (Salter, 2013).
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In its turn, this called for the dramatic increase in the number of ‘Asia literate’ Australians – something that could be achieved by ‘orientalising’ the foreign language curriculum in high schools to “educate Australian students in Asian languages and cultures with the assumption that this would enhance Australia’s economic interests in East Asia” (Henderson, 2008, p. 182). This points out to the fact that the main purpose of teaching the Chinese language to senior secondary students in Australia is essentially utilitarian – just as it happened to be the case with the purpose of teaching the English language to their Chinese counterparts.
Moreover, in a similar manner with the EFL curriculum in China, the CFL curriculum in Australia reflects the key values/traditions of the Australian system of education, as a whole. These are as follows:
- Decentralisation. In Australia, each of the country’s states and territories is in the position to define its own educational provisions to be applied, within the context of how senior secondary students study the Chinese language. This implies the absence of the all-national foreign language curriculum – something that makes it much more difficult for teachers to ensure the methodological soundness of their approaches to teaching English (Hones, 2005).
- Privatisation. In Australia, the acquisition of the second language by senior secondary students is often discussed in terms of a ‘public service’, which presupposes that, in order to be able to excel in studying Chinese language, students must consider resorting to the paid services of private tutors. Such a situation came about as a result of the fact that the proponents of Neoliberalism in governmental offices have been in charge of designing the country’s educational policies ever since the early nineties.
- Educational constructivism. In full accordance with the officially endorsed policy of political correctness, there are no positivist (objective) criteria for assessing the varying measure of students’ successfulness in studying Chinese language (Porcaro, 2011). One of the main considerations, in this respect, has to do with the fact that, as of today, just about every high school in Australia features a large population of native-speaking Asian/Chinese students, which puts non-Asian students at much disadvantage, when it comes to evaluating their academic progress in CFL classes.
- Lowered academic standards. The task of learning the Chinese language by non-Asian senior secondary students is assumed much too stressful for them to cope with – not the least because of this language’s sheer complexity and dissimilarity with their native spoken one. Therefore, the learning process is concerned with encouraging students to use Pinyin – the Romanised system for the phonetic denotation of the Chinese characters’ oral pronunciation (Lee & Kalyuga, 2011). Even though the deployment of such an educational approach does appear fully justified, many students perceive it to be suggestive of their ‘inborn’ inability to master ‘proper Chinese’, which naturally results in undermining the strength of their academic commitment to the concerned curriculum.
In light of the above-mentioned qualitative features of the CFL curriculum in Australian high schools, it will only be logical to assume that the learning process in question cannot prove very effective by definition. This indeed appears to be the case. For example, according to Wilson, Dalton and Baumann (2015), “In NSW, the number of HSC students studying Chinese in 2014 was just 798 (635 of which were students with a Chinese background), whereas a decade ago it was almost double that number, with 1,591” (para. 18).
Apparently, most non-Asian students in Australia do not quite understand why to attend CFL classes, in the first place. The line of their reasoning, in this respect, is not too hard to follow – why bother with studying Chinese, if I am still going to be considered an underachiever when compared to my Chinese-Australian classmates, who use this language to communicate with their parents at home? To complicate things even further, the majority of CFL educators in Australia consists of Chinese-born naturalised citizens, who tend to rely on the highly formalistic/rigorous approach to teaching the language – quite inconsistent with the laissez-faire teaching methodology, to which non-Asian senior secondary students are accustomed.
As Lee (2014) pointed out, “Native-speaker teachers… often teach Chinese in the same way that they were taught it. Australian students, meanwhile, are used to a different system altogether, and are thus predisposed to finding such methodology boring or overly rigorous” (para. 20). It is understood, of course, that the described state of affairs with the currently enacted CFL curriculum in Australian high schools, stands in a striking contradiction to the governmental agenda of endorsing ‘Asia literacy’ among Australians.
The provided descriptions of the main qualitative features of the senior secondary FL curricula in China and Australia, allow us to come up with the following analytical insights, regarding the discussed subject matter:
- Despite having been reformed to be more communicative/student-centred, the Chinese approach to teaching English language to senior secondary students continues to remain deeply embedded in the Confucian academic tradition, which in turn causes most Chinese teachers to persist with applying much ‘authoritative’ pressure on students, while requiring the latter to prioritise developing their writing and reading skills. Nevertheless, even though such a teaching strategy may appear somewhat outdated (when assessed from the Western perspective); there is a good reason to think of it as being fully consistent with the deep-seated linguistic anxieties in Chinese students. The rationale behind such a suggestion has to do with the logographic essence of Chinese language, which presupposes the sheer importance of visualisation, within the context of how Chinese native speakers make sense out of the orally delivered speeches and written texts – regardless of what happen to be the linguistic medium in question. Therefore, it is indeed thoroughly logical for Chinese EFL teachers to insist that students must spend long hours reading and writing in English, as well as memorising English texts by heart. After all, the deployment of such a learning methodology, on the part of EFL teachers in China, does closely match the one used for encouraging Chinese students to gain proficiency in their own language.
- The methodological provisions of the Australian senior secondary CFL curriculum cannot be deemed fully appropriate – especially if assessed in conjunction with what account for the contemporary socio-demographic realities in this country (Iredale, 1997). One of the reasons for this is that the conceptualisation of the curriculum’s objectives took place before Australian society had fully embraced the policy of multiculturalism. As a result, more and more senior secondary students in Australia grow to regard the prospect of gaining proficiency in the Chinese language, as such that represents very little practical value. Consequently, this provides them with a powerful incentive to consider dropping out – especially given the fact that there is nothing compulsory about the CFL curriculum in Australia. What contributes towards bringing about such a situation, even more, is the fact that, as it was implied earlier, Australian students are not accustomed to the manner in which they are being taught the Chinese language by this language’s native speakers. Thus, it will be perfectly logical to suggest that there is a pressing need to revise the curriculum’s very discursive foundation, as the main precondition for making it academically legitimate again. One of the possible strategies that can be utilised, in this respect, is providing students with the opportunity to study Chinese language in the so-called ‘immersion mode’ when they are being required to spend some fixed amounts of time socialising with Chinese-born native speakers only.
The main implication of the conducted research for me, as a future educator, is that when it comes to teaching foreign language in the classroom, the would-be deployed strategy must take into consideration both: the socio-economic/demographic dynamics within the society, and the innate quality of the targeted students’ psycho-cognitive predispositions. Because of what has been mentioned earlier, there is a certain rationale in assuming that these predispositions are at least partially reflective of the particulars of the affiliated individuals’ ethno-cultural background. Therefore, for one to excel as a leader in education, he or she may never cease applying a continual effort into broadening the scope of its intercultural awareness.
This suggestion is fully consistent with the ‘culturally sensitive’ paradigm in education, which is assumed to correlate with the multicultural realities of today’s living in the West (Byram, 2012). Unfortunately, as practice indicates, this paradigm’s provisions are often deemed purely declarative – just as it was illustrated, regarding the current situation with teaching the Chinese language in Australian high schools. Apparently, cultural sensitivity in education should apply universally to all students, and not only to those who are considered ‘ethnically visible’.
One’s willingness to act as a culturally sensitive educator has always been deemed as the proof of his or her professional adequacy. The reason for this is apparent – by taking into consideration the culturally predetermined psychological leanings of each individual student, a teacher will be able to enjoy much respect with the class, as a whole. Therefore, it will be logical to assume that is specifically the transformational model of leadership, which suits the best for those teachers who aspire to enjoy much success on the line of addressing their professional responsibilities.
As Silins and Murray-Harvey (1999) pointed out, “Transactional leadership may enable an organisation to operate effectively and efficiently, but, alone, it could not develop in followers the level of trust, loyalty and enthusiasm generated by transformational leadership” (p. 331). This explains my motivation for choosing in favour of becoming a transformational leader – I believe that my choice, in this respect, will prove not only ethically appropriate but also rationally sound.
As it was shown through the paper’s analytical parts, there many commonly overlooked qualitative dimensions to how foreign language is being taught to senior secondary students in different countries. The research’s findings suggest that there is a positive correlation between the extent of one’s professional adequacy, as a teacher, and the concerned person’s varying ability to recognise these dimensions well ahead of time. In the future, I would like to do more research on how the particulars of an individual’s ‘brain wiring’ affect his or her propensity in learning foreign languages.
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