Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 30, 2012

A Glimpse into Classroom Teaching in Beijing

For my maiden trip to Beijing, capital city of China, I was provided the opportunity to observe an Art lesson on Chinese paper cutting, conducted by a Master Teacher at Beijing No.10 Middle School.  A co-educational public middle school for students in grades 7 to 12 (ages 12 to 18) whereby its focus is on learning for life. The medium of instruction in this school is Chinese and students learn English as a second language.

Despite the lack of sophisticated teaching aids, and lesson being largely teacher-centred, the students impressed me by remaining engaged and interested throughout their lessons.  Such classroom scenario is common in China, probably stemmed from the universal assumption in Chinese society is that the teacher tells the single and absolute truth, and the job of the students is to absorb the knowledge conveyed by the teacher without question.

The lessons that I observed showed the Chinese teachers’ commitment and dedication to student learning.  What impressed me from the lesson observation was the thoughtful and meticulous lesson planning by the teacher.  From the relating of paper cutting to its significance in Chinese festivals and asking of questions to probe students’ understanding on given instructions.  The questions also facilitate the teacher to assess the students’ understanding and difficulties.  The teacher provided scaffolding, ample time and space for students to explore and be more creative. To encourage students’ creative spark in this lesson, the teacher created a safe and conducive learning environment for students to experiment, make mistakes and learn.  The teacher also though of in the event that students failed often in their experimentation and eventually giving up, some guidelines were also developed and explained thoroughly.

In facilitating students to think of new design, different designs of paper cutting and that done by an earlier group of Korean students on exchange visits were shown.  To encourage students the spirit of trying and innovating, the teacher assured the class that ‘it is not the end of the world, if you fail in your effort.  Just do it again and improvise from the previous mistakes.”  His reassuring words left a deep impression upon me.  In our classrooms, we often rush to give students right answers or hurry through as many questions as possible.  In doing so, have we forgotten to assure students that it is safe to provide the wrong answer?  Teachers are around to guide and support students in arriving the right answer and explaining the earlier process that went wrong.  In the working world, our students will bound to encounter challenges and failures in their process to develop solutions.  Hence it is critical for them to understand that failure is fine as long one is resilient, able to pick up the pieces and learn from earlier mistakes; as exemplified in the lesson observation.

This teachable moment was not incidental or left to chance, rather created through the careful planning by the teacher.  For example, the questioning approach that triggered deep and critical thinking and the provided guidelines that did not impose on students’ creativity but facilitated the process.  The entire lesson was conducted within the 45 minutes duration and there was smooth transition from one segment to another.  The lesson preparation was impressive, thoughtful and purposeful.  This brought back to mind the memories of lesson planning done, as an NIE trainee.  This experience definitely set the benchmark, which I hope to expect from my experienced teachers.  This also made me ponder as a Head, have I ever emphasized the importance or efforts in lesson planning to my experienced teachers or assumed that every teacher know the importance of it and each has a personal record of lesson planning?  Curriculum time is precious and learning should not be left to chance or by the way.  To facilitate such headway in teachers’ professionalism and having such expectations from my department teachers, being a Middle Manager, I will have to role model the professionalism, which I hope to see in them.

I was also impressed with the dedication and commitment by the Chinese teachers to continuously develop and improve their craft.  They are open to peer lesson observations and welcome feedback that will improve their teaching and learning, eventually benefitting their students.  This was observed at the dialogue session after the lesson observation, whereby the Master teachers are actively pursuing feedback and comments from us on ways to further improve their lesson.  I see an example of teacher taking ownership and initiatives for their professional development to level themselves up in terms of teaching and learning.  This spirit of professionalism is certainly something that the teaching fraternity could aspire for.

Posted by: Fong Li Sar


  1. Li Sar, I am grateful to you for surfacing such pertinent points in your post. One is about how we often rush to give students right answers or hurry through as many questions as possible without thinking about providing a safe environment where students are not afraid to fail. Two is about you pondering on whether we HODs should place emphasis on the importance or efforts in lesson planning.

    Your thoughts take me back to Dr Ng Pak Tee’s words on “The Teacher’s Heartbeat”. As Singaporean educators are often caught up in the paper chase, completion of syllabus and the equipping of our students with all the right answers become paramount. We forget that the true meaning of teaching and learning lies in the discovery of new knowledge, whether incidentally, accidentally or through failure. If we return to the teacher’s heartbeat, we will find our way again but in this day and age, it is easier said than done.

    As such, our students in the 21st century view education as only results-focused, and cannot bear the thought of failure for fear of being ostracised, ignored and thrown aside. What happened to the joy of learning through discovery even when there is a chance of failure? Are we as educators, the cause for their lack of resilience because they feel insecure all the time in the face of uncertainty?

    With regard to lesson planning, again in the midst of the chasing of results, we forget that the heart of effective lessons leading to effective results is exemplary lesson-planning.

    Like you, I too must take a step back to develop my teachers by going back to basics, and one way to do so is to relook lesson-planning, something that has been taken for granted for quite some time.

  2. Li Sar, thank you for sharing with your trip experiences especially the professionalism demonstrated by the teachers in Beijing, China? I have been hearing a lot from friends who went to Shanghai as well and they shared the same observations.

    I do have few questions that I would like to ask you:

    1. What motivates the teachers to display such professionalism?

    2. Why the culture of openness (peer observation) is prevalent in China’s schools?

    3. Why such culture of openness does not happen in Singapore schools?

    4. Do you think such culture can be sustained in the knowledge-based world that we are living in?

    I hope you can satisfy my curiosity.

  3. It is indeed an enlightening experience to observe how learning takes place in classrooms in China. I share the same sentiments that we can take lots of positives from the teaching professionalism of these teachers. I had a chance to observe some of the lessons myself when I was in Taicang, China. Teachers from other schools were even invited to observe lessons. Post-lesson observation discussion was also conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of lesson taught. This is very much like what we are starting to do here in lesson study.

  4. Indeed it is true that lesson planning is extremely crucial in the delivery of a good lesson. Personally, being in the Middle Manager Role and caught up with all the administrative work and planning, I have not sat down for quite some time to plan my lessons. In fact, more often than not, I will go into class and teach without much planning as I perceive that I am skilled and experienced enough to carry out a good lesson. Pride comes before a fall and if experience teachers continue to think that we have the necessary skills to teach a good lesson and not plan, our lessons will degenerate as time passes. It also reminds me to examine my staffs’ lesson plans more closely and examine the process and the outcome which the teachers want to achieve in the lessons. Questioning techniques ought to be discussed during PD sessions as these techniques will either allow the students to think critically or just give a cursory answer. This is a timely reminder to all teachers out there to continue to put in place what we have learnt in Teacher’s training College and not discard something so valuable in ensuring a good lesson.

  5. Thank you for sharing the experiences in China. I also had a similar experience of visiting one of the schools in China and was impressed with the classroom observations whereby the teacher was very skillful with her questions and the lesson went on very well. The students were very attentive and engaged. After interacting with the teacher then, I was told the teachers in China spent much of their time to plan and prepare the lessons to meet the learning needs of the students.

    I do agree that lesson preparation is paramount for teachers to ensure smooth delivery of lessons. Very often than not, with the many other tasks and responsibilities on our shoulders, teachers may have neglected this core component. As Middle Managers, we need to ensure our teachers continue to hone their craft in their various subject disciplines. We should not allow ourselves and our teachers to use our busyness as excuses for not preparing our lessons. Likewise, we cannot take for granted that experienced teachers will not need to plan and prepare their lessons especially with the changing profile of our students and the many syllabuses change. This will also mean as Heads, we will need to hone our craft too so that we can walk the talk and be role models to our teachers. For a start, we can invite our teachers into our classroom to let them provide feedback for our own lessons. It is only with openness, and of course role-modelling, that teachers can feel safe to learn from one another in planning and delivering the lessons.

  6. I think that in Singapore, we have become too caught up with the product and have forgotten about the process. We are fixated with the examinations, and our entire existence becomes dedicated to that one endeavour – that of attaining the necessary examination grades for our students. Yet this is a meaningless victory as the examination grades indicate nothing more than a good memory, proper procedural application and maybe that the student had worked hard studying the exam. Intellectual curiosity, reflection, inquiry, collaboration, creativity, contextualization, synthesis, disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity etc. have all been sacrificed at the alter of the National Examinations. (i rant more on this in my comment on the meritocracy post). We have perfected the factory system in our education.

    This is a pity as the affordances of our education system and schools grant us so much. Yet we choose to do so little. And we are burnt out from doing so little. We need to, as educators, shift our focus back to the process of learning. We need to go back to the basics of good lessons, lessons that resonate, lessons that stimulate learning and the desire to uncover more.

    This requires brave and enlightened middle managers and school leaders who are willing to cater to this with the faith that the completeness of learning will serve the national examinations as well as rote learning. This is a giant leap of faith and I am not sure if there is sufficient critical mass in the system to do this. maybe reforming the national examinations will be easier.

  7. You have highlighted three key points in the write-up:

    – Professionalism of the teaching fraternity
    – Importance of scaffolding lessons to increase engagement
    – Valuing teachable moments to impart non-academic knowledge

    In my work as a middle manager, these are exactly the main areas of concern I face. How can I raise the level of professionalism among the teachers? And you rightly pointed out that the amount of resources is not a determining factor for teachers’ level of dedication and commitment. A school may be poor, but rich in love for children or the want to do more for their students. You may be surprised that, it is in some of these schools, you find in their teachers a deep sense of responsibility and commitment. I saw this in a recent trip to the Tibetan Children’s Village in New Delhi. The school is not equipped with state-of-the-art technology or classrooms, and there aren’t many teachers. The Principal even has to teach some of the classes and still manage his administrative work. During the visit, the Principal explained to us that many of his teachers are relatively inexperienced and he hoped that we could observe his teachers’ lessons and give them some pointers. The Principal and teachers are humble and their willingness to learn from outside visitors is telling. Their passion to serve – to do the best for their students – is admirable.

    You mentioned that the lesson you observed in Beijing was largely teacher-centred, but students were engaged. Perhaps, the action of delivery (more teacher talk) seemed teacher-centred, but the approach to planning the lesson seemed student-centred. As described, the lesson took into consideration students’ prior knowledge and throughout the lesson, the teacher tried to bridge the learning gap. The teacher did not just brushed off opportunities for teachable moments. And I suppose teacher and students are engaged in questions and dialogues on the subject matter. So how can the lesson be teacher-centred? From the article, I assume the environment in the classroom is supportive and reciprocal and not a talk-down, authoritarian approach by the teacher. Such an environment is only possible if a teacher truly puts the students at the centre of his actions.

    However, such a comfortable environment cannot be build up overnight. And sad to say, most of classrooms in Asia and Singapore are still authoritarian in nature. Teachers talk more and students have less or no chance to speak. If we truly believe in goals of education in developing an all-round student, then studying the classroom environment issue is critical and should not be left to chance too.

  8. Thanks for sharing the insights.

    As one of the teachers is highlighted in the sharing, I am just wondering the issue of “teacher-based curriculum”. We do have teachers in our system who are very concerned about students’ learning, but many a times based on my personal opinion, such concern is limited to the students whom they come across with during that academic year.

    If one were to ask these teachers, they would say that they would rather focus on what they are able to change and what is within their sphere of influence. The issue here is us thinking that we have a limited sphere of influence not going beyond the four walls of our classrooms.

    Another issue is how we are overly dependent on a centralised curriculum, thus seeing it as an absolute truth and that we should just carry out instructions based on what is said or written.

    With these issues as deeply embedded ideals, there is no surprise when educators fail to realise that the planned curriculum does not equate to the experienced curriculum, thus unable to pinpoint an area to work on or to improve on.

  9. I shared the same sentiments as you and was also greatly impressed by the dedication and commitment of the Chinese teachers during my 3 weeks attachment at Xiamen years ago. Some of the key learning points I drew from my work attachment was, firstly, insights come out of familiarity, understand with depth and practice with variation. In China, the teachers advocate practice makes perfect. Working hard helps make up for their handicap. Practice until they are good at it, then they can understand and innovate. Students repeatedly apply basic knowledge in problem solving and extensive exercises. However, what was impressive was the expertise and skilfulness of the teachers in asking high level thinking skills questions in their classroom. The teachers emphasized mathematical reasoning and promoted verbal discussion and interaction between teacher and students despite having a super huge class. Although there is little use of ICT in their classrooms, teachers and students mutual complement and correct each other. Students were given the opportunities to inquire, retort counter examples and achieve consensus that is rare in many of our own classrooms. Secondly, there is strong collaborative culture among teachers. There is continuous school-based collegial professional development through lesson study for every lesson. It is a common practice for their Mathematics teachers to observe their colleagues teach and exchange comments about lessons. In Singapore, although there are existing platforms like Professional Learning Communities (PLC) to help teachers improve instructional practice through professional collaboration, teachers still tend to work in silos in their classrooms with their students and have few opportunities to interact and learn from their peers. Most of the time, potential implementation difficulties such as high teacher workloads and hierarchical system at workplace do hinder the smooth running of PLC. As leaders, we have to play a significant role in creating collaborative cultures that build better work environments giving greater teacher collaboration leading on to greater student achievement.

  10. I was in Shanghai recently on a study trip and observed several lessons. I was impressed by the openness of the teachers to having peers in their classrooms to observe the lessons. The teachers were well prepared for class and were exemplary in their delivery of the lessons.
    The observation report consisted of 4 domains, what was the objectives of the lesson and what was taught, process of the student learning and what I want to implement in my class and suggestions for improvements. As I spoke to the teachers and read their observation reports, it was noted that the teachers were looking for ideas to put into their classroom, identify the role of ICT in their classroom and ways to facilitate the learning of the students. The post lesson discussion was a rich mine of knowledge and the ideas were flowing to seek ways to improve the teaching processes within the group. It was like a lesson study process in Singapore, however it is every teacher was starting a lesson study project and invited peers to come into their classrooms to learn and share. I am working to implement such an organic growth mechanism within the school. However I am still working against the closed classroom mindset of the local teachers.

  11. Thanks for sharing your observations.

    I had the opportunity visiting some schools in Shanghai. I too noticed that the pupils were fully engaged during their lessons and was informed by the school that they have every little discipline cases. Like you rightly pointed out, it is due to their culture where they have high regard for teachers. Parents and pupils do not challenge or question the teachers. In turn, teachers too show high level of commitment in their job.

    Another thing we learnt was that teachers there are required to pay for their own training unlike Singapore where teachers’ training is fully paid for by the government. Upon completion of the training, teachers are required to source out for their own schools. They are required to attend interviews with the school panel and are deployed based on the interviewees strengths and schools’ needs.

    I was wondering if these could also be possible reasons why they are highly committed. First, they get the due respect from the society. Second, only passionate teachers would join teaching as they are required to pay for their own training. Third, schools will only employ you based on your strengths and their needs, and in a way teachers have the autonomy to choose their schools as well.

  12. The author highlighted that the Chinese teacher provided a safe environment for the students to acquire information in a classroom. I believe that this approach is not generally observed in Singapore as many schools placed a large focus on national assessment where traditional strategies such as drill and practice are adopted to help students prepare for the national assessment. As such, values such as resilience may not be present in the enacted curriculum.

    As schools in Singapore prepare our students for a student-centric and values-driven education, I wonder how many schools would place a greater emphasis on areas such as character and citizenship and values education.

    My next question is “Should values be taught in schools?” Or should values be caught in the daily lives of our students? I recalled my observation when I visited schools in Vietnam. The students from a local school in Hanoi are confident and eager to learn. They approached us during the school visit to create opportunities for them to use English for conversations. The hunger for learning and the confidence level in the students prompt me to think if soft skills such as confidence should or could be taught in classroom.

    I would like to conclude that though it is important to recognise the outcomes of our national assessment, it is also important to embrace the larger picture of our education where we envision our students to acquire the 21st century competencies. If so, I think that the first step to move towards this vision is to change our mindsets in how students should be taught in our classrooms.

  13. What left you a deep impression, the part about accepting failure as part of learning is what I connect with very strongly, and which I thought our education system fail to adequately deliver. I have always believed that schools should provide students with a safe environment to experiment, fail and learn from the process. If we are fixated with only the end product, we risk short-circuiting the learning, and harnessing the lessons to be gained from the process of searching for the answer. It is unfortunate that many of our assessments are still focused on assessing the product rather than the process.
    Under constraints of time, we often provide our students with the answers rather than facilitate them to search for themselves. We are good at preparing them for assessments, but are we preparing them adequately for society? But it would be foolish to prepare them for assessments altogether because of the heavy implications that assessments play for our students. Perhaps the answer is in finding a balance for our students then.

  14. I can’t help but compare with my recent visit to Taiwan’s Holistic Education School in Miaoli, Taiwan which also offers a very safe environment for students to learn with caring teachers but does not function as a mainstream school and probably one that Singapore may not be able to afford such an experimentation given the economic context that education functions on the premise of economic sustainability. Nonetheless, I thought the visit offered very interesting insights that I would like to share here.

    A school located remotely in a village in the mountains of Miaoli, about 45 minutes away from the Taichung city of Taiwan, taking up no more the land of 4 soccer fields on undulating ground and a total enrolment not more than 87 students with 13 dedicated teachers including one Principal and one Vice principal.

    Holistic Education School (HES) is an experimental school based on the philosophy that Nature and Man are responsible for its environment and must be preserved in order to restore humanity (become a good person), students of Junior and Senior High levels are encouraged to explore and engage to seek knowledge through experimentation and self-discovery. Teachers and Parents who entrust their children there believe such an environment can be created based on a culture of simplicity and purity (non-prejudice attitude).

    Simply put, it is a school which places great emphasis on building intrinsic values based on the deep belief that a structured approach is not suitable for everyone. By giving their students the space and time through intrinsic motivation help students to learn without fear of prejudice. In this way, students are given the freedom to explore greater possibilities in the areas of interest that may not be available in mainstream schools.

    Through a dormitory system, students make their own rules what they should and should not do within their dormitory and metes out a system of consequences to follow. By allowing children to explore the things they “should” do, and derive feedback and fulfilment on their own, these values become things they “want” to do. As a result, ownership is solely derived from self-realization given the space and time to internalize good values agreed among themselves. On a larger scale and platform, students settle their own problems such as bullying and stealing in a mini court system which is held once a week in the school’s congregation area which is a common area for all to gather. Students will decide how they should resolve their issues and the consequences that follow.

    Parents’ roles are encouraged to utilize the appropriate channels to communicate with teachers or administrators, providing both sides with an opportunity to learn. Hence, it is undoubtedly a healthier way to engage in conversations with the school and not waste their energy through gossip and finger pointing. Likewise, Parents are seen as important stakeholders and HES seek their support as partners.

    HES’ notion of success is based on meaningful platforms to serve own purpose. HES’ addresses mediocrity with the philosophy that they will help guide students realize that they must change for the better what they can, accept what they can’t, and have the wisdom to understand the difference. The same attitude is reflected when educators give the space to students based on the philosophy that students will naturally do their best once they have found their realm of interest whether it is engagement in the sciences, maths, philosophy, music or the arts etc are accounted for and developed further.

    HES’ does not function like any other mainstream school and though not recognized and acknowledged as best practices, it has its place in areas of character education and caters for those who cannot adapt or benefit greatly from a mainstream school. Its unique pedagogy and curriculum, albeit an unstructured one are worthy of mentioning.

  15. “It is not the end of the world, if you fail in your effort. Just do it again and improvise from the previous mistakes.”

    What is most striking about the teacher’s reassuring words is the faith and belief in the child’s potential and ability to learn. His reassurance is reflects the patience his shows and underlies the commitment he gives to the task of supporting the child’s growth.

    Making mistake as an integral element of learning. Making mistakes – to borrow Jean Piaget’s term – results in an experience we can cognitive dissonance. If the tone of teaching and learning is conducive enough, those who make mistakes can get the most out of the experience and with support can chart a new progress as the learners reflectively make sense of what they have underwent Too many times, the rich process of learning, which involves a series of trial and errors is not given due care and attention because of our unwavering and efficient pursuit of ‘correctness’, ‘desired results’ and ‘best outcomes’, a disposition that made us intolerant towards what the value of exploring and experimenting and discovering.

    A lot of respect must be accorded to the process of learning and the learner itself if we were to adopt a more vibrant culture and inject new spikes of growth. In respecting the learner, I would sum it up in through 3P principles: the respect of the child’s presence, the child’s participation and the child’s potential. These principles must underlie a dialogic approach of teaching which blends didactic teaching tactically into it, enhancing students’ involvement in learning by giving them encouragement.

    Honouring the child’s presence is key in helping direct our full attention to them, their social-emotional as well as their learning needs. It is not what we are teaching. It is WHO we are teaching. Our learners, are real persons in flesh and blood, not merely a number that is represented in our annual academic reports. Thence, knowing them for who they are, is imperative to strengthen our rapport as well as in enhancing the quality of our facilitation as a teacher who leads, care and inspire.

    Honouring the child’s participation compels us to encourage their active participation in the learning process. We create a reassuring and non-threatening environment that gives them the confidence to contribute and co-construct meaning based on the subject matter at hand. Their input is as important as ours. Hence, the teaching requires a dialogic approach that champions the spirit of discovery through not only ‘teacher talk’ but also ‘learner talk’. And in the context of the example highlighted in the first part of this comment, it would be to elicit responses from them to explain, justify, evaluate, reflect, analyze what they are doing and are learning, an effort that will help strengthen learning.

    Honouring the child’s potential is to recognize that every child has an aspiration and a ready set of skills and talents for us to appropriate and exploit to help us develop in them additional range of skills. We must not just teach the child for what we want them to do now, but what we hope they can do for others in future as well-sorted individuals.

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