Seventeen years of reducing pressure for students in China

*This is the last post for the Contemporary Pedagogy class. I appreciate the skills learned in this class. Some of the methods discussed in this class are mind changing and give us the impression that learning is fun and easy. I myself had this thought that if I feel hard when I learn, then there must be something wrong with the instructor. Well, learning can be fun and easy, but not always. I write this post to remind myself and some of you who may have the same idea as mine that the easiness is not and should not be the goal of education.
When I was in middle school, a group of Japanese students visited our school and had some conversations with us. One of the students read a question from her manual, “I heard that Chinese students study very hard. How do you spend your day?” Since she asked that way, I tried my best to show how hard life is for a Chinese student. However, she looked disappointed. My life was somehow more comfortable than hers. Years later, I started to know that I was a part of a movement to reduce students’ academic pressure. The movement originated before I was born, and became an emergent order from the administration of education in the year 2000. The main idea was less course, less homework, and less exam. That movement started dramatically. I remember that in spring 2000, I did not have any homework. Then parents and schools realized that the more they followed the policy, the weaker they are in the standard graduation exam. Most schools started to act in the gray area as gray as possible to save their average score. It did not take long for the government to realize the schools’ counteract. More strict regulations and enforcement were released. There were limited innovations can be done on the school side, especially the public schools. The parents turned to private school or privately owned education institutions (companies). The household education costs kept increasing over the years although the tuition was low and still regulated by the governments.
The movement to reduce students’ academic pressure in China did not achieve its purpose. The students are still under great pressure. The reason is obvious. The life after school stays the same, if not harder. The regulations on schools hurt the middle-class families. Their kids still need to compete for the seats in colleges classrooms if they did not spend the costs on the private education institutes. The path to college for students from rural areas who could not afford the private education becomes narrower. The call for more ways for students to enter colleges was answered. Some students can bypass the Gaokao (the College Entrance Exam in China) by showing their talents in certain areas. However, those paths were taken as advantages more by students from wealthy families than by the financially poor students. Those results somehow violated most Chinese’ value of equal and fair education.
Learning, just like losing weight, is not always a pleasant experience.
The competitions are there. The learning loads do not seem to be decreasing as the society evolves. Reducing the quantity of learning is beyond the capability of most educators. I think the role of educators would be like fitness trainers, to ease the experience by showing them more scientific ways of doing it. When they do it right, they are stronger and more confident to do more. I guess that’s the value of pedagogy studies. As education researchers, we should not ignore the reasons for hard work. We should have the confidence to tell people what is need to be done instead of saying what they want to hear.

School Inception

Nobody likes to receive a half-baked explanation from people higher up, particularly if it is to explain why something cannot be done. What’s more, the specific level of annoyance that’s felt can vary with the style and wording of the excuse. Up there for sheer gall are ‘Because I told you so’ and ‘God works in mysterious ways’. There is another however, that infuriates me even more than these two staples of parents and priests respectively. The worst excuse a person in authority can utter is ‘we cannot afford it’. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on. This is the United States we are talking about. A country that increases its military spending by $50 billion does not come across as a penny pinching nation. There are people who literally have more money than they know what to do with. So why, more often than not, do we accept this explanation so willingly and unquestioningly?

Parker Palmer discusses the reasons more eloquently than I ever could in his essay: The Aims of Education Revisited. Institutions hoodwink us into believing that any ill feelings we have towards society, or the way things are done, are purely a manifest of our own inadequacies. So effective are they at this deception, we often resign ourselves to inaction. In Palmer’s words, we know but we do not recognize. Why does this happen? One reason and one reason alone. Our education system still places obedience to authority above all else. As long as this remains the case, the man in charge will be able to get away with murder. Time and time again, institutionalized cruelty is given a pass. Although this was not news to me, it was comforting to know that someone else gets as mad about it as I do.

As I mused over Parker’s words, I began to rack my brain for the grandest, most heinous embodiment of this phenomenon. That is how I came to ‘we cannot afford it’. We all know about the massive inequalities in wealth within and amongst societies, but still we do not recognize the fact. We know if we redistributed the wealth, we could fix pretty much all of the world’s problems. But we do not. Instead, we tell each other we can’t afford it, whatever ‘it’ may be; ‘we can’t afford to provide free healthcare, we can’t afford to send aid to 3rd world countries, we can’t afford to provide housing for the homeless’. That’s bollocks. We have the money to do all of those things.

So, Parker writes, the solution is in education reform. Unfortunately, progress is hampered by the hierarchical structure of our educational institutions. An Inception-esque dreamscape exists; classrooms within departments, departments within colleges, colleges within universities, there’s no way out! At each scale we can clearly see the authoritarian rule and the subjected masses. Even if some emboldened teacher or even whole department raises the courage to teach disobedience as Parker advocates, the next level in the hierarchy will resist, either consciously or unconsciously, and the system as a whole will likely remain relatively unchanged. I don’t think the situation is hopeless mind; I’m just concerned that much like the movie inception, it will take far longer than it should.

I’m not a professional

I’m not a professional in the current sense of the word. I’m not terribly interested in advancing my “professional skills”, i.e., giving presentations, computer skills, project management skills, etc. I know, I know, I know – these are all important things to work on as a professional person in a professional world. I’m likely just being stubborn – maybe even lazy? But I get frustrated with people and offices that only push this kind of professionalism. I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot this semester, and wondering if I’m in the right field. A significant portion of my work and schooling has revolved around professional development this year. But I don’t feel it’s truly adding to my skills as an educator. Attend this conference for planning flawless events, attend that workshop for learning about eportfolios, listen to this speaker for interview skills. All of these things are helpful to a degree. But they’re helping me climb a professional ladder that I don’t necessarily care to reach the top of in my career. As a professional, I want to be kind, honest, open, patient, and groundbreaking, all while remembering the passion for learning that brought me here in the first place.

A line from Parker J. Palmer’s “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisted” encompasses everything I’ve been thinking in regards to professionalism over the last few months. Palmer writes, “We will not teach future professionals emotional distancing as a strategy for personal survival. We will teach them instead how to stay close to emotions that can generate energy for institutional change, which might help everyone survive.” Reading this put a big smile on my face. I’m not crazy; at least one other person out there feels the way I feel. To me, professionalism has become such a cold term. It’s routine, controlled, and adding to a boring, systemic way of carrying out work. I nearly cheered out loud reading Palmer’s line that reveals the original meaning of the word professional, “. . . someone who makes a ‘profession of faith’ in the midst of a disheartening world.” Now I have the perfect excuse any time I don’t want to participate in a “professional” development activity ?

In all seriousness, I’ve felt disheartened lately in my own profession of higher education. So much of it is focused on my personal growth as a professional, working on largely administrative skills that will make me appear organized, well-spoken, and accomplished. I got into higher education because I could walk around a college campus all day and not get bored. I could sit in a class for hours and be intrigued for every second of it. I could listen to students talking about their interests and goals for days, and never wish to be doing something else. Education isn’t my key to professional stardom, it’s a feeling and a way of life that I value above all else.

In but Not Of the (Academic) World

While Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach was an assigned reading for another class of mine, I still find it to be a good reminder of why we’re all doing what we’re doing. Especially towards the end of the semester, experiencing some burnout, I really needed the reminder. This is the time where the undergraduate students have sent about a million emails about their grades and how everything will be determined. And although it makes me want to scream, I’m sympathetic towards them (in some ways) as I don’t think I’ve received a single grade in any of my graduate courses. Parker Palmer always gives us a good reminder that we’re all human and that feelings matter. Why we try to tuck them away in academia is still puzzling and yet we’re so conditioned to do it. I love the description in Parker Palmer’s A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited – “in but not of” the academic world (or world in general). Personally, I’ve always heard this phrase used from a religious standpoint but feel that it is very fitting in this context as well.


I met with the professor I co-teach with this past week and this week’s readings/videos, along with the course in general, helped to guide some of the conversation that took place. Since I’ll be teaching 50% of the course next semester, I feel that I have a lot more say-so this time around. I offered my opinion that I thought the students needed to be encouraged to engage themselves more rather than answering multiple choice questions that come straight from the textbook – cue the lecture by night, homework by day comment from “What is School For?”. We both agreed that grading 120 short answer questions on a regular basis just wasn’t feasible so we took some time to brainstorm other options.

Our class conversations and this week’s readings/videos have helped me to shift my thinking about the purpose of my class. As an entry-level course, what do we want them to know? What do we want them to be able to do? This is a question I’ve held close to me the entire semester. I think it is most important for students to realize by way of this class that most things in the food world are not black and white. It is essential that students are able to see both sides of an argument and to be able to acknowledge (and be sympathetic to) opinions that to not align with their own. This could mean incorporating debates, small group discussions, opinion papers, etc. into the course. I also want this class to serve as a means of general interest in Food Science. There are numerous topics related to food that are equally controversial as interesting (GMOs, plant based meat products, organic versus conventional farming). Plus, food is part of everyone’s daily life so each person has to make food choices on a regular basis. This may mean changing some of the current course curriculum. Right now a textbook defines which topics we will be focusing on each week. The textbook isn’t bad, but it does leave out more current topics that are probably more relatable to this generation of students. Lastly, I want this course to serve as a means of connection. While we did have a few graduates students come in to talk about their research this semester, I would like students to be introduced to more opportunities outside of the classroom. I’m thinking this could be attendance to defenses or research seminars within the Food Science department. Attendance at Food Science Club meetings could also fill this void. Most importantly, I want the students in the classroom to get to know one another better. Right now there is little interaction between them all. I’m realizing more and more that learning communities are beneficial for all; that getting to know peers both inside and outside of your own major is invaluable on both a personal and academic level.



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No More Broccoli

My dad is an Episcopal priest. We moved to a new church when I was about 16. It is a medium sized church in Upstate New York, and one of the first sermons he gave there was about getting rid of “Broccoli Church.”

Sit down. Shut up. Eat your broccoli. It’s good for you.

Church, for many, is a place you go not because you want to, but because it’s good for you, your parents made you, or your parents made you and therefor you’re going to force your kids to go as well. You sit in your pew, sing when required, respond when required, and be quiet when expected because it’s good for you. My dad wanted to change that. He wanted projects and events that people were excited about participating in and that would help the community. The congregation rallied behind this message. Families got involved. They planned and put on events. Ministry wasn’t only coming from the pulpit, it was coming from the congregation as well. For Christmas that year, the congregation gave my dad a bottle of Heinz ketchup and the label read, “Can’t Help Broccoli.”

This class has been about ending “broccoli school.”

Sit down. Shut up. Read this. It’s good for you.

We want education to come from all sides of the room. We recognize that students have the ability to teach each other, and also teach us (the instructors). We want students to be motivated by the projects they are working on. We want students to put forth their best work because they want to, not just because we control their grades. We want students to become the best engineers, critical thinkers, critical readers, mathematicians, soil scientists, landscape architects, food scientists, and whatever combination of whatever else they can be.

There’s no one way to do this, though. You don’t need to radically change the physical appearance of your classroom. You don’t need to have everything done on a computer. You don’t need to do away with lecture completely. You don’t need every single project, activity, or reading to have a direct real world application. Vegetables are gross, but they are still good for you.

My dad didn’t stop giving sermons. He didn’t tear up the pews and place them in a circle. He did, however, engage with the congregation outside of the service. Before the service on Sundays, after the service on Sundays. He met with parishioners on the weekday mornings and evenings. He added more than he took away, and I think that’s an experience we can learn from. Add more to your classroom; don’t just take away. Engage with your students; build a rapport. Jig saws will work some places, and not others. Lectures will work in some cases; and readings as well. The more tools you add, the better prepared you’ll be. Work on perfecting the craft of teaching, not perfecting the application of theory.