How do you say Essential Question in Mandarin? We now know, having just returned from a wonderful week in Beijing working with 300 Chinese educators. The Beijing educational system turned to UbD as part of a nationwide commitment to increase the development of critical and creative thinking in China’s drive to modernize its education system.
We were amazed and humbled by the work ethic of the Chinese teachers. Not only did they give up 6 days of winter vacation; not only did they work from 9 to 4 each day with us: they met for an hour or more after we left to go over the work of the day in teams, and did homework each night (that the Principals checked!). We would then arrive in the morning to receive our Powerpoint – in English and Mandarin – with their questions from the postmortem session, typically totaling 20 or more excellent inquiries. Then, during workshop exercises or breaks, they peppered us with more questions or a desire to have us critique their emerging unit designs. (In addition to the 2 official translators, one of a dozen teachers of English from the 3 schools was always at hand to translate.) If this attitude is typical of Chinese teachers it won’t be long before they have a world-class educational system.
A poignant and revealing moment came in the closing ceremony, where 3 teachers were asked to give speeches discussing their reactions to the work and the week. All spoke of their amazement of our ability to answer questions spontaneously on the fly, and to make them feel respected as learners, thereby. One male math teacher began his remarks with an off-the-cuff reflection on teaching this way. But then he told us that he would now read his ‘real’ speech! He had been so taken by our unscripted talk that he wanted to try it himself publicly.
As happens when people come together to work together our own learning was intense. Many of our pre-conceptions about Chinese people and the city of Beijing were completely unfounded. Drab soviet-era city? Gone: Beijing is indistinguishable from Paris, Bangkok or New York (except for the smog, massive apartment buildings in all directions, and the most chaotic and heavy traffic you could ever imagine.) People who are reserved and formal? Almost never. Their talk, jokes, facial expressions, and body language were indistinguishable from those of Americans.
There was one inescapable Enduring Understanding from our extraordinary experience: Intellectual understanding goes hand in hand with cultural understanding.