An authentic East meets West approach in the classroom
International schools in China, especially Preschools or Kindergartens, have, over the past couple of years, began to rethink their approach to delivering their curriculum. Stephen Walshe emphasises the importance of a school structure in which school leaders and teachers are visible models of cross-cultural understanding, cooperation and communication.
A number of International Kindergartens in China now offer more Chinese language and are in the process of rebranding themselves as Bilingual schools. In doing this many schools are embracing an “East meets West” philosophy and including language in their Mission Statements.
What does this mean in practice?
If East is to meet West, an understanding, appreciation and respect for both cultures, including their languages, must be promoted. Simply allocating more time for Chinese language in a Kindergarten does not promote this. It may, in fact, do the opposite. As we all know, a young child develops his or her view of the world through their experiences and their interpretation of these experiences. And children, especially young children, are rapidly accumulating, interpreting and beginning to develop their world view through the lens of these experiences. Therefore, the child will be developing an appreciation of how East interacts with West in a way that reflects how these cultures are presented to the child. Children are very quick to pick up nuances in hierarchy and this has implications for a school promoting an East meets West philosophy.
If the school has a lead teacher – assistant teacher hierarchy, with the English teacher being the lead teacher and Chinese teacher being the assistant teacher, this has implications not only for how the child interprets the roles of each teacher, but also their cultures.
In assistant teacher – lead teacher relationships, it is usually the lead teacher who plans the lessons and activities, develops the classrooms management strategy and is the “go to” person for reward or disapproval. The assistant teacher’s role is described by their status; assistant. Host country assistant teachers usually have a defined language slot during the day and for the rest of the day are subordinate to their lead teacher. Now I am not saying that productive equal relationships do not occur between such teaching teams. However, creating this classroom hierarchy does not set the stage for equality. Children quickly learn that the important person is the lead teacher and by implication of that authority, their culture.
Therefore, there is a real danger that in trying to develop an East meets West ethos by developing a slot for Chinese language, a school might create a situation where instead of promoting cultural understanding they are creating cultural inequality. One could go as far as to say, it is a form of neo-colonialism.
An alternative approach
There is an old saying; “Don’t listen to what I say, look at what I do.” An alternative is to use a co-teaching model with English and Chinese homeroom teachers in each class. This is not a lead teacher, assistant teacher relationship, but a professional relationship where both teachers share the responsibility for the class and as such are visible models of cross-cultural understanding, cooperation and communication. There are designated Chinese and English days and teachers swap roles depending on the language for the day; English teachers assist Chinese teachers on Chinese language days and Chinese teachers assist English teachers on English language days.
Age-level coordinators also reflect this diversity with age-groups having either English or Chinese age-group leaders and, at the management level, co-principals, Chinese and English. This structure, at all levels of the school ensures that the lens the child is interpreting experiences through is one of equality.
Towards a greater understanding
I would further argue that in such a Kindergarten set-up the child is not just being exposed to a bilingual environment but also a bicultural environment. For an East meets West philosophy to be meaningful, a language slot for the host country teacher is insufficient and may actually be detrimental to an understanding and respect for the host culture. Therefore, for East to meet West, there must be a level playing field.
Yes, there will be disagreements and misunderstandings and things may take a little longer to implement when agreement across cultures becomes an ingredient in decision making. But that is what makes the experience worthwhile, not just for the children but for everybody.
Additionally, the more exposure young children have to such an environment, the better prepared they will be for a future in which they will most likely be interacting, working and quite possibly living in a culture other than the one they were brought up in.
An East meets West approach to education begins with school structure.
Stephen Walshe is Co-Principal of Fortune Kindergarten, Shanghai
Feature and Support Images: Fortune Kindergarten