An American in Chengdu

The big day | September 22, 2009

I taught my first lecture today—my first lecture ever, not just in China. I think I made it through without any

The classroom

The classroom

catastrophes, but I’d be interested in knowing the students’ feelings about that.

There are several major differences I’ve already noticed between the American and Chinese education systems. In China, for example, undergraduate and graduate education for doctors is combined into one eight-year program. My students are in their fourth year. I’m co-teaching Medical English, which has two sessions, one on Tuesday and one on Friday, each with about 50 students. So I’ll deliver the same lecture on Friday.

These future doctors have years of English under their belts, and of them told me that all of their classes are taught in a mixture of Chinese and English. One challenge for me is discerning what words and concepts are old hat for them, and which bear extra explanation. Which brings me to difference number two: Chinese students don’t ask questions. And its close corollary: they don’t volunteer answers. Sure, you can ask the class a question; I saw Samantha do this when I sat in on one of her lectures. The students will mumble the answer—or something—in a voice just loud enough for their immediate neighbors to hear. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear a person or two in the first couple of rows say the right answer, and you can say, “that’s right, it means surgical repair of the kidney.” Or whatever.

Perhaps the most significant difference, though, is that—at least at this school—students do very little work outside of class. Instead they go to class from the Spartan hour of 8:00 am until shortly after 5:00 pm, with a break for lunch, and then their time is their own. At the end of the semester they’re expected to study hard for a week or so before final exams.

The major advantage for teachers, of course, is that there’s no grading. Also, you can teach straight from the book, since the students probably haven’t reviewed it on their own. You can even use class time to have them read short passages before discussing them, because 90 minutes is an awfully long time to fill. But how to avoid boring the students (and myself) to death with endless recitations of facts, definitions, and pronunciations? Therein lies another challenge.

Today, after many definitions and pronunciations, and some calling on random students to answer questions about the text, since no one would volunteer, I had the students read the introduction to a review article on kidney regeneration. Then they had to work in groups to come up with one question (per group) about the passage to ask the rest of the class. This went reasonably smoothly, though there were some duplicate questions. Several people even volunteered to give answers. Then I came to the last group.

“Our question was already asked,” said the designated speaker, who’d been one of the most engaged students that day. “But here is one: What is this article about, and what is it not about?”

No one volunteered. I called on someone, but she said she didn’t know.

“Ok,” I said. “Who can tell me what it’s not about?” I thought this was a no-brainer, as the last two sentences of the introduction were something like “Since so much has already been written about chimeric kidney-regeneration methods, we won’t be discussing them here.” No one would admit to knowing that, either. I explained what the article was about and wasn’t about, and how we could tell from reading the introduction. Then I threw out a spontaneous question of my own.

“But this first paragraph isn’t telling us what the paper is going to be about, is it? Why include all of this about increasing rates of diabetes and higher demand for kidneys?”

I might as well have asked who wanted to demonstrate kidney transplantation on two of their classmates. It seemed I was telling them something completely novel when I finally revealed that the first paragraph was telling us why we should care about the topic of the paper. Why regenerate kidneys if there are plenty of healthy kidneys to go around?

It was an eye-opening interaction, though it’s possible that I’m reading too much in to it. What I think I saw when the light bulb went on in my head is that these students have never been asked to read anything critically or analytically; they’ve read purely for information. It was the second time in a week that I thought maybe I really could put my foreign expertise to use here. We’ll see. First I have to learn to talk more slowly when nervous.

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    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.
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