Once Again, this Time with Computers: Delivering the Same Old Pedagogy with New Technology in Rural Chinese Schools

by brachbach

One of the great tropes in technology for education is the techno-utopia: drop in the computers, and pedagogy will magically become progressive overnight, creating classrooms full of 21st-century learners prepared to work in the knowledge economy. Another is the techno-flub: deliver a bunch of computers without any integration into existing curriculum, tech support, or teacher training, and watch them gather dust. But how about this reality: add in the computers and get something that looks very much like preexisting pedagogy, just a little flashier and more efficient.

From my research in schools in rural Northwestern China, that seems to be exactly what is happening in math class there.*

First I need to set the stage of what the preexisting pedagogy looked like (and what pedagogy in schools without computers still looks like). China is both seen by the world and sees itself as a nation of rote learning. I found that characterization to be true of computerless math classes in the schools that I visited. Teachers lectured students on step-by-step problem solving procedures. These procedures were codified enough that the entire class could recite them in chorus together, a commonly used teaching technique. It’s what Paulo Freire would call a banking pedagogy, where authoritative teachers store prespecified knowledge in students’ heads as if they were banks. The textbooks and teaching materials encourage this kind of pedagogy by presenting the material in a procedural, algorithmic format. I have seen many a teacher up at the chalkboard writing the problem-solving steps demanded by this pedagogy.

Equip the teacher with a computer and a projector, and things don’t change much.

In the schools that we visited in Ankang in southern Shaanxi province, the math teachers we observed use PowerPoint to present each lesson. The content of the slides were the textbook diagrams, explanations, and sample problems that teachers would have to deliver orally, via the textbook, or by writing on the blackboard if it weren’t for the PowerPoints.

The teachers told us that PowerPoint allows them to get through content more quickly, and that the colorful graphics engage students. Students themselves told us that they like math class because of the PowerPoints, so there seems to be truth to the idea that they are engaging. (An aside: something that has struck me about China in my year living here is the preponderance of PowerPoint, universally referred to by the file name suffix “ppt,” in all aspects of life. A visitor arrives at our research center and wants to know more about it? PowerPoint. Your employer wants to let you know about the requirements of your new job? E-mails you a PowerPoint.)

One class that we observed brought home to us how closely the computers fit with preexisting pedagogy. The teacher started with a PowerPoint and then switched to writing on the board halfway through. Observing her teach, my research assistant and I figured that was simply how she had planned the lesson. When we interviewed the teacher afterwards, she was flustered: she told us that the circuit breaker got flipped, cutting power to the computer. She had to copy out practice questions from the textbook onto the board, so she couldn’t cover as many as she wanted to.

What struck me about this incident was that the loss of the computer had so little impact on the flow of the class and on learning activities that we didn’t even notice that it had happened. Also telling was that the teacher reverted to the textbooks rather than winging it with her own inventions. Behind the scripted order of the PowerPoint was the scripted order of the textbook.

Why have computers in these classrooms reinforced existing pedagogy instead of transforming it into something more progressive? After all, for more than a decade, Chinese educational policy has emphasized the need to put the needs and interests of students first and to move towards student-directed exploratory pedagogy rather than teacher control. At the highest level, this is an attempt to mimic what Chinese see as the educational strengths of the West in producing creative workers. At the local level, the teachers at the schools that we visited talked about small-group exploratory learning and student-centeredness.

It seems to me that one reason that the computers didn’t really change pedagogy lies in the nature of the technology: a one-to-many projector system is perfect for a teacher to lecture her students, and not so convenient for individual or small group work. Teachers easily adapt their lecture routine to this new medium.

An additional reason is that rhetoric about progressive pedagogy has yet to make the connection to the daily reality of teaching in these schools. All the teachers that we talked to said that they follow the teaching materials that they are given when preparing lessons, and clearly this is what their principals expect them to do. Those teaching materials strongly suggest a banking pedagogy.

Progressive ideas fail to penetrate to actual practice when teachers use the rhetoric of progressivism to refer to the reality of traditional pedagogy. In one class, students drew marbles from a hat and tallied how many marbles of each color they had drawn according to strict instructions, then reported the totals to the teacher. From these reports, the teacher asked very strong leading questions to the class to arrive at the rules of probability, the predesignated content for the day. The teacher described this as allowing students to “produce conclusions through their own activities.” Quite a stretch.

The reality of computer use in math classrooms helps me contextualize the computer tutoring program that I am researching, which is just as traditional in its pedagogy (although the computer takes over from the teacher as the authority on mathematical knowledge). I wonder, despite the progressive rhetoric and their requests for more “exploratory” elements in the software, do these educators even want software employing what I would call progressive pedagogy? Could it plausibly fit into their schools?

After asking these questions, I have to question my own biases: Why am I so fixated on moving towards more progressive pedagogy? What’s wrong with just making things more efficient?

The computer tutoring program is an example of making traditional pedagogy flashier and more efficient for which we have data on effectiveness. The program boosted students’ standardized test scores by as much as any intervention that our research center has tried. I think that’s great. But when I think about software like SRS, I feel that there is room to transform pedagogy for the better, moving beyond the narrow goal of algorithmic standardized tests without sacrificing the goal of learning important rote knowledge.

As I wrap up my research project, I plan to spin off a number of these blog entries related to my emerging analysis (the second in the series is here). My project would really benefit from your critical comments, so ask questions and let me know what you are thinking!

*I’m studying a math computer tutoring program run by the Rural Education Action Project, the research group that I’m affiliated with here. I’ve spent a total of four or so weeks in four program schools in Shaanxi and Qinghai provinces over the past seven months, observing the program classes and interviewing teachers and students. When I realized how closely the program was related both to regular math classes and to other uses of computers in the schools, I began observing those as well.

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5 Responses to “Once Again, this Time with Computers: Delivering the Same Old Pedagogy with New Technology in Rural Chinese Schools”

  1. I completely agree with your observations of the “Powerpoint culture” in China. Despite the goal of Powerpoint to break down and diversify long-form speeches by adding bullet points and graphics, it seems that in China it is still totally acceptable to put up a huge block of text on a slide and simply recite it. I have noticed this in the classes I audit and many conferences I have attended. This makes me wonder, in certain cases, are teachers actually using Powerpoint to make a lecture more accessible, or is the ‘ppt’ a showcase for their access to technology, a tool that must be used so that they don’t fall behind their peers at other institutions? As my experience is only in urban China, I’m curious about this dynamic and Powerpoint culture in rural areas. I’m also curious about how you refer to the computer tutoring program as ‘flashier’, and I would love to hear more about how the computer systems are received by the students and teachers.
    A few very broad questions: How would you further assess whether or not the teachers really want to adopt more progressive pedagogy? And if implementing the computer tutoring program didn’t drastically change the banking pedagogy, what do you think would?

    • Yes, I’ve also noticed that Chinese PowerPoints often have words spilling over the edges of the slide, and the words are so small as to be illegible! My sense is that presenters automatically reach for PowerPoint without much thought, leading to them just dumping whatever they want to say onto their slides.

      Keeping up with the Joneses is not a reason that the teachers mentioned for using PowerPoint, but I can definitely imagine that there’s some of that going on.

      When I say “flashier,” I’m referring to student and teacher comments that PowerPoints are more “colorful” and
      “interesting” and that computers make it possible to display images and videos. Actually, I was just reading over student questionnaires, and a few students said that they like their regular math class because of “multi-media” (i.e., flashy PowerPoints), and that multi-media helps them to learn better.

      The computer tutoring program is very explicitly intended to reinforce existing pedagogy rather than to change it (should have been more clear about that in my post). So if it had transformed pedagogy, that would have been a failure!

      As to how I would assess whether teachers would be open to more progressive pedagogy, I tried to ask all sorts of questions about that with little success. It was just too abstract to talk about, especially given the problem of progressive buzzowrds having different meanings for me than for the teachers. I think I would need to adopt the prototyping techniques of partcipatory design, where researchers, teachers, and students work together to mock up software that reflects the goals and ideas of the intended users of the software. That makes things more concrete. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get the chance to do a bit of that in these last couple months of my Fulbright.

  2. I wonder if it is useful to step back from the pedagogical and ask what the goals are. What is it that China/these teachers hope to accomplish through classroom instruction and practice? What are the essential understandings and key questions they hope students will have reached at the end of the process? Once you/they have a sense of desired outcomes, then you can explore which practices might best help reach those goals. My understanding is that in China, tests continue to determine student success in school (and beyond); the kind of teaching and learning that occurs in the classrooms you describe might be quite effective in preparing students for these tests. A second thing to consider is the teachers’ experiences as students and teachers in training. Chances are good that they, themselves, learned in a more rote style. Unless teacher training explicitly helps them learn alternatives, it is very hard to expect them to be more “progressive” in their approaches. Finally, it is sometimes useful to think about when more rote approaches can be useful. Sometimes learning materials rote and then later returning to them in more inquiry-based ways can be a reasonable approach. What exactly do you mean by “progressive” pedagogy? Why is it better? Is it always better? The project sounds very interesting – these are the questions your post raises for me.

    • Thanks for your comment! I think you’re totally right that it’s important to step back and consider goals. I think that both China and these teachers are caught between the goals of teaching to the tests and of encouraging more progressive pedagogy in line with the national “quality education” initiative of the past decade. In elementary math, teaching to the test means teaching the correct procedures to answer narrow computational questions.

      Progressive or quality education tries to meet students’ needs and put students in charge of their own learning: more emphasis on arousing student curiosity, more group work, more student exploration rather than teacher lecturing, and a smaller body of knowledge to be learned so that students aren’t so overburdened with school work. (This definition of quality education is common between the official national policies and what teachers told us in the schools.)

      The conflict between rote and progressive is that rote standardized tests are undoubtedly still the primary standard of judgment for schools, teachers, and students at all levels, culminating in the all-important college entrance exam. On the other hand, the textbooks have been reformed not to cram in so much content and to be more interesting. Also, teachers told us that they now employ more group work and try to give students the chance to explore for themselves (although as I wrote in the blog post, that rhetoric is often connected to classroom practices that still look quite rote to me). The education system, and particularly teachers, are caught in the middle. After explaining how she likes the new, post-quality education reform textbooks and how she has changed her pedagogy to include more group ork, one teacher told us, “China talks about quality education, but really it’s just about getting through the exams, to say it plainly it’s just about getting through the exams.”

      I have no doubt that rote knowledge and its accompanying lecture pedagogy emphasizing correct procedures for doing questions are extremely important, as executing this well on tests is the only way for students to advance through the exams in the education system. It would be quite a disaster if rote learning in these schools disappeared overnight.

      The real question is not whether rote knowledge still has a place, but rather whether there is any room for quality education. I think so; I think that quality education can make learning more meaningful to students, including learning the rote content of exams. In addition, China’s stated goal for quality education is to educate a generation of engaged thinkers capable of functioning in the more service-oriented economy that is China’s future. Finally, both the teachers and I see quality education as good for the development of students’ thinking abilities and their general well-being.

      I think the answer is to strike a balance between rote techniques and quality education. That teachers lean towards the rote almost certainly has to do with their own experience and training, and I agree that it is unrealistic to expect them to move towards progressive techniques without much more training and scaffolding.

      I do feel, though, that educational technology projects are great opportunities to push towards more progressive education. That’s because they require careful design, at which designers can be sure to include “quality” pedagogy. Also, electronic content can be strongly imbued with progressive pedagogy, potentially making the pedagogic switch easier for teachers. That’s why I still feel that I want to see more progressive educational technology projects!

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