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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Metacognition and Inquiry Journals?


I have not posted anything for a while because I have been traveling in China - serving as a U.S. representative on a delegation for the International Reading Association.  The purpose of the delegation was to foster goodwill and the exchange of ideas between the Chinese educators and our own – 22 educators from all over the U.S.  This was planned to fall several weeks prior to Obama’s visit.
The tour began in Beijing, moved to X’ian, and ended in Shanghai.  The delegation visited schools, met with educators in various roles, and exchanged ideas with teachers.
Our delegation leader is Dr. Particia Edwards, president elect for the International Reading Association.  Dr. Edwards brings a wealth of information on international reading practices.  As part of our role as delegates, Patricia required each delegate to write a counter narrative on a specific school visit.   I was assigned to day 1 and our first in-country overview of the Chinese educational system.  Our presentation was made by Teng Jun, a Doctoral Candidate of the International and Comparative Education Research Institute, Beijing Normal University, who had just returned from the U.S. 

Following is my rough draft for my reflection.  I am offering it here because I believe the format requires the writer to think on a higher level and reflect – at least that is what it did for me. 
Please keep in mind this is a rough draft and is simply a reflection.
Date:  November 5, 2009
Place:  Swissotel, Beijing, China
        Hong Kong Macau Center
Delegation Leader: Patricia Edwards
Name: Darlene Bassett, Winthrop, Maine, and U.S.A.
From an American’s Point of View
This is my first trip to China.  As an American Educator, I have traveled and worked throughout the U.S. and in several European countries.  My work in Europe has always been enjoyable – but with a full awareness of how others viewed me – as an American with a sense of entitlement and an attitude of “knowing it all.”  This was usually overcome during the course of my visit.  So it was with a certain level of apprehension that I approached our first “in country” overview. 
Added to this frame of mind, was what little I knew about China.  When invited to be part of the people to people delegation, I understood part of our focus would be on the role of women in China.  Like most Americans, I thought of China as a Communist state, still much as Mao left it.

When our guest speaker, Dr. Teng Jun, arrived I was surprised when she turned out to be a articulate, intelligent young woman who had traveled in America and visited several schools. She was dressed in Western style – a feminine, lacy dress - very Laura Ashley.
I thought this was odd and immediately wondered why the college would send a female especially one so young.
 It was in direct opposition to our assumptions.
She introduced herself, establishing her credentials, and then graciously invited us to participate in an interactive presentation as she explored the similarities and differences between our two school systems. This was done expertly by asking us what we knew, thought and needed to know. The instructional style – we were being taught – was similar to the beginning of a guided inquiry unit – establishing what we thought we knew and what we wanted to know as well as clearing up confusions. Several times she reassured us that we had already addressed what she had planned and then moved on to the next piece.
It was with this gentle but expert pressure, we moved forward. At Dr. Jun’s suggestion, we focused on the ways our schools were alike – speaking in generalities.
Several times, questions addressing differences were set aside, by Dr. Jun explaining we would explore these questions when we finished our discussion of likenesses.  We never arrived at this point because we ran out of time.
For me, reflection is always the best way to bring clarity to any situation.  I will admit to being confused at times during the presentation and thinking perhaps it was my hearing. However, as I revisited my notes and traced my thoughts, I had more questions than answers.  Following are the statements I question.
1.  China’s education is moving from a centralized organization to a decentralized organization, similar to the U.S. 
·      How far have they moved towards this goal when:
o   All students wear the same uniforms?
o   All students have the same daily schedules?
o   All students have two periods a day for “recitation” (undefined)?
o   All students are assessed at the same age and “counseled” by parents to follow predetermined career preparation early on?
o   All schools are funded by the government?
o   All schools follow a predetermined national curriculum?
o   All schools must meet national standards?
2.  The U.S. and China have similar overall organization.  Dr. Jun equated general organization of grade levels to the same education.  Do the same grade levels equate the same education when:
o   K is free in the states and usually focuses on social skills of the individual, but does not exist in public school in China?
o   Small group instruction, supported by the RTI and IDEA legislation, is the focal point of NCLB in schools across America, while in China the national curriculum mandates a core of material that must be “known” by everyone?
o   Guided inquiry is the focus of many of the 21st century standards in the U.S., but in China there is still a focus on rote, memory – emphasizing coverage?
o   Middle schools and high schools in the U.S. are moving towards 90 minute blocks in order to allow students and educators the time to develop higher level thinking strategies around content, but in China 40 minute blocks are still in place?
3.  The basic philosophical difference between our two
educational systems appears to be most obvious when we indirectly discussed the role of teachers.  This is the essential, elemental difference and it is pivotal to all else that happens in American schools.  Our roles as educators requires that we meet the needs of the children we serve, whereas the Chinese educators appear to be the purveyors of knowledge and students are expected to meet their expectations.  Is this not illustrated when:
o   In the U.S. we have federal money and mandates to be sure teachers provide the appropriate support for our students faced with learning challenges (RTI, Reading Interventionists, Title I or II, Special Education, IDEA, etc.) but in China, they are just beginning to think about this issue?
o   Retention in the U.S. is discouraged while in China; the student must meet the standards or repeat the year?
o   In the U.S. middle schools and high schools offer a variety of courses exploring modalities of learning, but in China courses deal with the core national curriculum and do not “deviate” in areas they consider enrichment?
4.  Dr. Jun indirectly addressed this issue when she shared an article – shortened – by a Harvard undergraduate student published in the New York Times Magazine. The article argues that the college the Chinese student previously attended delved in depth into the field of mechanics, described as the Soviet-style over-specialized Chinese college education, while U.S. colleges provide a liberal (and superficial) education.  The author argues both approaches do no damage, but feels sorry for all the American students will miss. Ironically, the article concludes all will be well as long as learners continue to “remain curious enough to make choices.”  The point of disagreement appears to be on how much time one should take to make individual choices. 
Following this line of reasoning, the ultimate issue becomes a political one:
In a democracy, as in the U.S.A., education is seen as a development of the individual, directed by individual choice.  This is consistent with our belief that individuals are the basis of government and everyone has rights to own and direct their own life.

In a communist state, as in China, education is seen as a way to develop the individual to best serve the state.  Choices are made on individual abilities, channeling individuals into roles where they will excel within the framework of the needs of the society. This is done at a very early age.  We would argue too early for individuals to have a sense of who they are.
So the issue becomes do we maintain or do we continue to grow, develop, and change as a whole?
Interestingly enough, the highest academic achievers in this society have the distinction of being allowed the self-direction, the “freedom” the students referred to, the article cites as existing in the U.S.  Further, China’s society as a whole aspires, blatantly competes, to earn this academic privilege.  
This fact alone, belies the entire system…and forces us to question how far along the continuum China has progressed.

What I found most beneficial for me as a learner, was the deeper level probing around those statements where I felt dissonance – how could this be true if…  This process helped me sort through the entire trip and gave me a clarity I would not have developed otherwise. 
Pat built on this by having each of us respond to the other’s wonderings with counter thoughts or agreements to support the ideas.
This applies to our classrooms where we are struggling with inquiry.  I see many teachers attempt to have students write questions and/of keep an inquiry journal.  Some of the student entries are beginning to look as disjointed and unrelated as some of the early connections we allowed students.  So … I am thinking this process might help develop in students an ability to engage in inquiry.  I am suggesting that teachers might start with a format similar to what I have shared and then have students join in – adding more thoughts to counter those presented or to support what has been written. 
Good luck!  I hope the process is as productive for you and your students as it was for us.

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