In 976 A.D., Zhang Shi and Zhu Xi, two leaders of ancient Chinese learning, climbed Yuelu Mountain, located on the west bank of the Xiang River in Changsha. When they arrived at the summit, they built a platform and named it “Hexi,” which translates as “the splendor of sunrise.” The platform became the foundation for Yuelu Academy, one of four ancient academies of higher learning in China. It accepted students throughout the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, eventually becoming Hunan University in 1926.
So, one Saturday, I joined Aaron and Claudia, two of our grad student guides, and thousands of other travellers intent on retracing the footsteps of those ancient academics, to explore the rebuilt grounds and buildings of Yuelu Academy for ourselves. Although hardly a mountain by Canadian standards, it was a healthy trek uphill, its way lined by restaurants, stores, and trinket booths.
Once we reached the hilltop, the crowds dispersed a little, and we enjoyed the cool, quiet greenery and ponds that surrounded the academy buildings. Happily, the information signs were written in Chinese and English so I could read them for myself. Claudia supplemented my learning by listening in on the Chinese tour guide commentaries, and translating them for me when the groups moved on.
Although I learned about many aspects of Yuelu Academy’s history, the lecture hall fascinated me the most. The lecturers sat in pairs on a raised platform. One wrote on a board behind their chairs while the other one talked. The students, or disciples as the information boards called them, stood up in the lecture hall, absorbing the words of their teachers. We couldn’t find out how long the lectures lasted, but I’m inclined to think the concept “mini-lesson” hadn’t been invented yet.
One of the reasons that Walter and I were asked to deliver the Teaching in English program in Changsha was to introduce the professors to lecture method alternatives. The vice-president of our inviting university emphasized that as long as lecturers relied on the direct transmission approach, in which students memorize information to pass an exam, China’s higher education system would struggle to develop creative thinkers or problem solvers.
In response to this request, I designed a variety of student-centred activities which would help the professors to experience other methods by which students could be introduced to and process new information. The professors participated in a panel discussion on motivation and engagement in higher education. which they delivered while seated at the front of the room. Many of the professors said this was a group work option they hadn’t considered offering to their students.
We also played a learning game called Four Corners to help them consider the advantages and disadvantages of various learning activities. In groups, they walked around the four corners of the classroom and added a pro and a con to each posted sheet, without duplicating what the group ahead of them had written. To add some competitive fun to the game, the last group to add a new comment “won” that sheet.
They also participated in a “sketch to stretch” activity. I asked the professors to choose one sentence from an eight sentence paragraph that described Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory, which says that collaboration assists student learning. First, the professors individually sketched their understanding of the words, then I posted the drawings in an “art gallery.” When the gallery opened, they viewed all the sketches and asked each other to explain the meaning of their interpretive drawings.
Then, one day, a professor asked me two thought-provoking questions. “What is the purpose of student-centred activities? And what is my role as an instructor in a student-centred classroom?”
My visit to Yuelu Academy gave me a different lens through which to consider these questions. The activities I had been asking the professors to consider trying with their students pushed against the cultural mass of more than 1000 years of two seminal Chinese higher education traditions: the teacher as lecturer, and the teacher as the sole expert in the classroom. Were my Western ideas about student-centred learning too tall an order for the professors to enact when they returned to their universities?
And so we discussed the question from a variety of perspectives over many days. I told them about my visit to Yuelu Academy and what I had learned there. One of the professors said that he too had visited the site. “I like this place very much because it is about Chinese higher education.” But a GIS instructor reminded his colleague that Yuelu tells the story of traditional Chinese higher education, rather than its present state. We discussed the pros and cons of the lecture method, and of student-centred, interactive methods. Which was better suited to produce the innovative, thoughtful problem-solvers that China needs, now and in the future?
I introduced the professors to the concept of the teacher becoming the “guide on the side” in a student-centred classroom, which meant they would give up at least some of their role as “the sage on the stage.” I also explained that they would be very busy in their new role, setting up a learning environment for the students: choosing engaging materials, arranging discussion groups and other instructional activities to get students thinking, and facilitating these activities rather than lecturing.
The professors considered all these ideas, debated them, tried to figure out how and when and if to implement them in their daily practice. I knew that, ultimately, these decisions would be their responsibility. But from what I heard and understood of their discussions, I believe that there are some Chinese students who will be experiencing a 21st century “Hexi,” as some exciting new learning opportunities appear on the horizon in their higher education classrooms.