Yesterday our international group (composed of educators from the UK, Australia, and the US) had the opportunity to visit both Hangzhou Normal University as well as Zhejiang University here in Hangzhou, China, just outside of Shanghai.

Panorama from the 17th floor: Zhejiang University

(full panorama: 4154 x 976)

Hangzhou currently has a population of about 13 million people, Shanghai has a population of about 26 million. In Oklahoma, were I live, our state population is about 3.5 million. Zhejiang is one of five major universities here in Hangzhou, and has 39,000 students. We visited two of their campuses.

The library at Hangzhou Normal University

Students in the cafeteria at Hangzhou Normal University

In this photograph, the translator is pointing to the location of our conference hotel in Hangzhou, where we spent the first two days of our visit. The areas shaded in orange are the campuses of Zhejiang University, which we visited in the afternoon.

The location of our conference hotel in Hangzhou, by West Lake

Bicycles at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China

There are a multitude of thoughts and new perceptions running through my head as a result of yesterday’s tours, as well as our time spent here listening to and sharing with Chinese scholars and university students. One of the ideas at the forefront of my mind is the courage which is required to speak out in support of creativity, innovation, and change in our educational systems – both here in China as well as in the West.

Meeting with Chinese colleagues at Hangzou Normal University

Yesterday during our visit with students at Hangzhou Normal University, one of our international team asked them, “If you could change anything about the K-12 system in China, what would it be?” A first year graduate student in education spoke up, and discussed some of the problems with China’s examination-focused educational system. She spoke in English, and shared how this was not only a political dynamic, but also a cultural one based on the expectations of Chinese parents. This same need to address the exam-focused educational system was mentioned later in the day by a professor in a another college we visited, who was asked about innovations in education which he sees as important to the future of China.

Classroom seating at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China

This problem of having an exam-focused K-12 school system is not China’s alone. We share this problem and context in the United States, although the exam orientation of Chinese students, teachers, parents, and institutions is even more extreme than what we see in many US public schools. I am struck by not only the similar situation in which we find ourselves educationally in the United States with respect to our Chinese colleagues, but also by the need for courage and bravery to speak out in favor of change in both cultural settings. The value placed on conformity and uniformity here in the Chinese culture is extremely high. In addition, great importance is placed on respect and not losing face. To suggest that something needs to change is to imply, or directly assert, that some things are broken and need fixing. To make this statement in front of one’s peers, in front of an international audience of visitors, and in front of one’s academic superiors takes real courage and bravery which I both respect and celebrate.

Dr. Xu Xiaozhou (Zhejiang University) and Dr. Mike Searson (Kean University)

The costs of speaking out, even among friends here in China, can be high. Although I know the names of both the student and the professor who spoke out yesterday during our meetings at their universities, I am reticent to share their names here openly. Will they face repercussions or censure as a result of the ideas they shared, which can justifiably be perceived as criticisms of the status quo? I fervently hope not. The government of China as well as many of China’s educational leaders in higher education with whom we have met this week understand the vital importance of creativity and innovation in the 21st century knowledge economy. They understand they need to find ways to learn from the West in this respect, to encourage and support change within their institutions and invite dynamics of creativity to play a role in educational, cultural, and economic development. We in the West struggle with this issue as well, and although we have many examples of creativity in our culture and our society, it is easy to argue our conformist educational school systems were not the primary genesis of these manifestations of creativity. How can schools and leaders support creativity and cultures of creativity? Since those cultures require “different thinking” and risk on the part of multiple participants, this is an extremely challenging prospect within institutions and bureaucracies on both sides of the Pacific. Understanding these difficulties, this remains one of the RIGHT conversation to be having at home and internationally with other concerned educators and leaders.

At one stage, it can be argued that creative thinking begins with the willingness, motivation, and decision to behave in courageous ways which do not fit an existing pattern. It is much easier to conform, to follow expectations, and maintain a “low profile” among peers and others in a given context. To question, to challenge, to imagine a different present and a transformed future is to step out into an arena which can quickly become unprotected and lonely. One of the most important ways we can use digital technologies at our fingertips is to seek and find support among other, likeminded individuals, who seek to lead organizations, institutions, and nations down a path of collaboration and continual improvement.

Dr Carl Owens with students in Hangzhou Normal University

I am exceptionally energized and inspired with hope by the conversations and experiences we’ve shared with Chinese colleagues here in Hangzhou this week. We have a great deal to learn together and from each other, as we both continue to explore a variety of issues and challenges. Among theses, the role of ICT in the learning process, and more generally the ways creativity and innovation can be supported within as well as outside of formal educational institutions, are critical issues. The respect with which the Chinese treat and regard educators in their society is a breath of fresh air in so many ways. These relationships of respect can pose challenges in the context of 21st century learning, however, as we encourage educational leaders to be co-learners and facilitators of learning with students. Just as teachers in the United States can have LOTS of problems letting go of their perceived CONTROL over the learning environment, the role of Chinese educators as the director of all activities in the classroom is supported culturally, institutionally, and politically. Our challenges in these conversations about 21st century learning and educational transformation are formidable. Fortunately, there are a LOT of very smart and courageous people involved in these conversations, and our continued work together is bound to bear abundant fruit.

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