Killer Assumptions

Over the last 17 years I have lived as an expat, and 14 of those years I have spent in Asia. You might think I should be a bit of an expert after so long abroad. I’m not.

2010 was the first year I lived in China. Visiting public schools within Shanghai was a weird disconnect, back to the future. Classrooms were crammed with 50 students in rows of wooden desks- with minimal books, or rugs, or wall décor. When called on, children stood and shouted answers at a teacher. Elevated on a lecture pedestal at the front of the class, she barked back if their answer had been right or wrong. They rote recalled English phrases, learned math at a chalkboard, and all marched in unison out of the room. They were five years old.

A photo of a Chinese school visit in 2010

Yet, even in 2010 all the classrooms were equipped with a Smartboard and the teachers used them incessantly. The teachers talked of a network of learning that happened on their phones, when Twitter for education in the West was just starting to take root and grow. I didn’t really dig for answers, or engage in dialogue to deepen my understanding of the context, I simply walked away from that experience and developed a list of assumptions that I have held true for the last 7 years.

My assumptions were thus:

Chinese students are compliant.
Chinese schools lack resources.
Chinese teaching methodology is subpar.
Chinese education’s goal is to produce homogeny.

It’s not easy to admit to these assumptions. I have dedicated the last 17 years of my life to being an international teacher for the International Baccalaureate, I literally wrote the books for the Learner Profile on how to build global mindedness in children. I identify as an equity agent, grounded in service learning and social entrepreneurship. Admitting to these assumptions is painful, and make me question who I am as a global citizen. So, why do it?

Over the last year I have been working on my doctoral participatory action research (PAR) project that is grounded in creating greater equity within international schools. That journey has made me take a hard look at the realities versus assumptions that teachers and leaders hold in cross-cultural contexts. My study is not specifically focused on the efficiency or effectiveness of international schools but rather firmly rooted in advocacy and social action. Drawing on Brazilian activist-educator, Paulo Freire’s (1970) work on identity and power this research is designed to open dialogue and demands an end to ‘a culture of silence’. The intimacy and trust needed when being embedded within the context of the PAR provides the opportunity for a deep shift in self and others through dialogue. Through this research I have had no choice but to consider the types of dehumanization and taming of other’s voices that I had been engaged in. In this first cycle of the PAR I returned often to Freire’s questions, “How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others — mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize the other “I”s?

The data I have gathered clearly indicates that; despite attempting to engage in equitable dialogue, to tease out issues, to co-formulate ideas, to be open to the ideas of others, to be humble, Western teachers act with good intention but fail to build cultural capacity because of their hold on assumptions. I have evidence that the kindest, most self-aware teachers still do not allow the time for second language learners to voice their own doubts, hopes, and fears. They fail to allow co-teachers, teaching assistants, and local teachers to share the depth of their practice, to justify their teaching actions, to share their cultural norms. Instead Western teachers dominate the conversation, name phenomena for others, and assume their world view is a shared one. We operate in the realm of assumption rather than reality.

How do we kill our killer assumptions?

LEVEL 5 was designed as an agile learning space that acts as an innovation platform for educators, school leaders and the wider community. As director of LEVEL 5, I work to design an eclectic range of professional development (PD) opportunities and creative experiences aimed at scaling education reform in schools. One of the opportunities we have created is hosting Learning Exchanges (LEs). Learning Exchanges support ambitious, equitable, and durable schooling outcomes that prepare teachers and youth as workers, citizens, and family and community members.
 LEs focus on learning from and with each other to act collectively. Leadership in the learning exchange lexicon is a function of many, not solely invested in a person or a group of persons. Leadership is collective and relational, not individual and top down. By focusing our efforts on relational trust, dialogue, and reciprocal learning as indispensable prerequisites of effective change, LEs amplify and accomplish a balanced set of academic, social-emotional, and civic outcomes. Our theory of action: teams from schools, and community organizations experience and practice LE processes, and then customize and transfer those practices to the larger learning community.

We are within a host nation, how do we extend the learning exchange beyond our international school walls?

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to visit four public schools within the Shenzhen school district. Leaders and teachers sat down with me and explained their ideas on education, professional development, as well as their hopes, dreams, and excitements for the future. They spoke of pedagogical repertoire, cultural exchange, technological integration in authentic contexts, and tangible ways they are using technology to ensure equitable education for all within China.

I spoke with one math teacher that won teacher of the year award. Primary teachers in Chinese schools are specialists. They share classrooms and travel to students. This means that a mathematics teacher is highly competent in her content field, which is in stark contrast to the West where teachers are often content generalists. This got me to thinking about fundamental changes in teaching norms involved in that simple shift. Research in mathematics education has examined teachers’ personal beliefs and the impact of those beliefs on knowledge. The research has been used to argue that teaching is a cultural activity (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999), and in particular, that there are cultural norms that teachers operate within. Efforts to evaluate and improve teaching within a particular culture, however, need to be framed within considerations that include the notion of individual choice as well as the need for individual teachers to adapt to the workings of a complex system of interrelated agents. This means that what works in the West may not work within China, and that is perfectly ok.

The “instructional triangle” is a diagram that Cohen, Raudenbush, and Ball (2003) created. The instructional triangle largely looks to understand the relationship between the teacher, student and knowledge (or content). The cultural norms at the macro, meso, and micro levels influence teachers, students, tasks, as well as shape the instructional situation. Without understanding the nuances of those norms, it is impossible to justify any one pedagogical approach over another.

What does teaching and learning look like in Chinese public schools?

Teachers hold professional obligations to the content, to individual students, to the class of students, to the school, to the government. But what does that obligation look like within public education in China? The only way to dispel Western assumption is to engage in thoughtful dialogue and listen to the narrative of the participants who operate within a specific instructional triangle. The following is the photo documentation of my visit/observations of four Chinese primary public schools.

Outdoor learning spaces were devoted to Chinese culture, making, and connection to nature.

Interior spaces make clever use of natural green.

Even in potentially awkward spaces, schools enrich the space to make it green, functional, and the heart of the community.

Spaces are dedicated to reading. In one school books are available to families 24 hours a day. Books are found in breakout pods, libraries, and reading corners.

Performance rooms, theatres, and meeting halls with agile space were evident.

Teachers have set-aside work space and meeting areas.

Spaces to explore and celebrate Chinese culture and history are contained within each school, with the diversity of Chinese culture at the center of many learning experiences.

Teacher-specialists lead students in the arts.

Class sizes are generally large. 35- 45 students per classroom makes pods, or agile learning spaces within classrooms more challenging.

Makerspaces, design studios, and technology such as 3D printers, laser-cutters, and robotics were in each school.

All the schools had some form of agile room for teachers and students to use.

Green STEAM was evident with one school that is focused on a sustainable future. Finding ways to enrich a content heavy curriculum with learning experiences such as STEAM was a point of conversation.

An interesting bi-section of community involvement of local makers, and “museums” within schools evidenced working towards leveraging community for learning.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the space (both mental and physical) devoted to the sharing of practice. Studios with tracking cameras, massive LED screens and mics allowed teachers to broadcast their lessons throughout China using the app, CCTalk.

This extreme deprivatization of practice was a huge eye-opener for me. Beyond using hashtags and tweets capturing snapshots of learning, Chinese teachers were open-sourcing education to all areas of the country. Teachers shared that they often demoed lessons and then received critical feedback from colleagues as a regular part of their on-going practice. These points made me question the proprietary education of International Schools. Sure we share resources and ideas — but what would happen if we gave away our education for free to schools in need around the world? How would parents who pay a premium for their child’s education feel? How would boards that run budgets, or build state of the art facilities react? What about if schools around the world shared their lessons with us, would we assume that they were subpar because they didn’t fit within our cultural norms? What if we had a culture of humility and were able to listen to critical feedback in order to hone skill and build cultural capacity? How would it change our practice? How would it change education? How would it shift our assumptions?

Sure, there were lots of things that I noticed that needed changing within the Chinese system, but those were things that the teachers and leaders reflected needed changing too. It was not all cherry pie and perfection- but it was no more problematic than the issues we face in public schools in Canada or in International Schools world-wide.

Let us return to Freire’s questions that I have grounded my self-reflection in over the last year, “How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others — mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize the other “I”s?

The simple act of visiting these schools and engaging in dialogue grounded in active listening has transformed my earlier assumptions into the following emerging theories:

Chinese schools have unique needs based on context.
Chinese students deal with unique cultural factors that are influenced by family and society.
Chinese schools are resourced in ways that do not inhibit teaching and learning.
Chinese teaching methods are evolving and match the specific needs of their contexts.
Chinese education’s goal is to produce smart, harmonious citizens.

Admittedly, a few site visits and a handful of translated conversations do not construct true reality. Reality will be co-constructed within the learning exchanges we develop at LEVEL 5 over the next year, and in our dedication in supporting the creation of equitable, networked innovation communities both within international schools and our host country.

For more information about LEVEL 5 and the work we are doing please visit our website Please consider sharing this article, or giving us some love below 👇 Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to find more about what we do at Level 5.

Resources and Further Reading

Cohen, D., Raudenbush, S., & Ball, D. (2003). Resources, Instruction, and Research. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(2), 119–142.

Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.