New Oriental debate

If you attended IATEFL or watched it online, you might remember a debate between Jim Scrivener and Jocelyn Wang of ‘New Oriental’ (NO) school in ChinaA recent edition of ELGazette features an interview with  Wang. According to the article:

British teacher-training guru Jim Scrivener was roundly defeated in his defence of Communicative Language Teaching by [Wang] who argued passionately and in perfect English for the benefits of traditional Chinese teaching methods

I’m not sure how the writer was able to ascertain who ‘won’ the debate, but to me, Wang’s argument, that CLT was in principle a great idea, just not suitable for China, put me in mind of one of my childhood heroes, Jackie Chan. In 2009, Chan, who hails from Hong Kong, wondered aloud about his country’s democratic future:

I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not…I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.” 

In this post, I want to examine some of the arguments Wang made in favour of ‘traditional Chinese teaching methods’. 

Traditional teaching methods with Chinese characteristics

As the trad/prog debate rages online and particularly on twitter, some have pointed to China’s impressive ranking on the PISA tests and suggested that we could learn a thing or two about teaching from listening to Chinese educators who stick to very traditional teaching methods. In simplistic terms the approaches differ in the following ways:

This idea reached its culmination in a BBC ‘experiment’ (reality TV show) in which Chinese teachers were brought to England to teach British kids. (You can see an example of a rather bizarre grammar lesson here). 

The debate between Scrivener and Wang was the latest salvo in the ongoing prog/trad war. It wasn’t billed as such, because progressive teaching has largely been victorious in the UK ELT world and what would be labelled ‘progressive’ is considered, by many teachers, as just ‘teaching’. 

During the debate, and in her article, Wang makes several specific claims that push against the progressive ethos of UK ELT such as:

  • CLT doesn’t really work in the Chinese context.
  • The communicative approach doesn’t help students memorise language.
  • It is perfectly OK for teachers to speak entirely in Chinese in the lesson
  • Students do not need to speak in the lesson (i.e to practice the target language) 
All of these claims are specific and research to either back up or contradict Wang’s claims could’ve been presented. For instance, if we believe that input is the only thing necessary for acquisition, it might be perfectly defensible to have a class in which students say nothing. In fact, CLT’s application in Chinese classrooms has been examined by a number  authors (see for instance Yu 2001Liao 2004Hu, 2005) yet none of this research is referred to, instead Wang chose to argue that Chinese learners learn best when taught using a ‘Chinese approach’. 

A Chinese-centric approach 

The New York Times reported that the Japaneseonce tried to ban foreign-made skis because they were deemed unsuitable for Japan’s ”unique” snow“. Anyone who has lived in Japan will be familiar with this kind of argument. Japanese Stomachs are unsuited to American beef (sorry we can’t import any!) and so on. As stomachs digest, so brains learn. And as Long notes “the architecture of human brains varies very little among adults or among children”(2011:375). Yet when Scrivener points out that the kind of teaching promoted by Wang was “contrary to all contemporary theory, about how people learn languages”, Wang shot back with “are [the studies] based on Chinese learners?” Perhaps, like left brain, or right brained learners, there are also Chinese brained learners?

As Wang is Chinese it seems difficult to argue with her ‘insider knowledge’, of what Chinese students needs. When progressive education tell us that that ‘everyone learns in different ways’, then it makes sense that Chinese students may learn in a ‘Chinese way’. So we nod along as we’re told “when Chinese learners learn anything, they value quantity” and “the whole idea of practice sits awkwardly with our view of learning”. 

However, there are a few problems with what she presents as the Chinese approach to learning languages. Firstly, What she describes as ‘Chinese learning’ is the same ‘transmission approach‘ of teaching which was common in many countries at one point and is still common in many classrooms. Secondly, is it unfair to point out how conveniently the homogeneous ‘Chinese learner’ she describes, desires the kind of teaching New Oriental offers?

A final criticism is that NO’s methods bear no resemblance to those of another famous Chinese educator, Yang Li, creator of Crazy English. For while NO boasts73 schools, 803 learning centres and 20,400 teachers in 61 cities across the country, Crazy English has over 20 million students. Unlike NO, Crazy English promotes massive amounts of student oral practice and somehow still manages to draw in huge numbers of students. Crazy English teachers conduct mass rallies with lots of chanting in English which seems odd as we are to believe “the whole idea of practice sits awkwardly with our view of learning”. 

Ancient Traditional Chinese wisdom! 
Another line of defence employed by Wang was cultural and historical. She defended silent language classes by referring to an old Chinese proverb:

sān sī ér hòu xíng
Three think, then act. 

Which she translated as ‘think 3 times before you speak’ and made the point that China had a 5000 year old history and that the teaching style is Confucian in origin.  

This would be a bit like saying that the silent way is a good method because in English we say ‘Silence is golden’. Actually, that would be a better proverb since the Chinese phrase she quoted would be better rendered as ‘look before you leap’ which is really unrelated to speaking in a language class. This is basically ideology disguised as best practice. Chinese people are different, the culture is different. Our ways are better because they’re older (argument from antiquity), they come from Confucius (argument from authority). I have discussed the problem with arguments from authority here and it should be obvious but something being old is no guarantee it’s any good. The same arguments are routinely used to defend questionable practices like traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture.  

This post isn’t a defence of CLT or an attack on traditional teaching. Wang is an eloquent speaker and it’s good to hear a voice from one of the most populace countries in which English is taught. I think she and other Chinese teachers can give us an interesting insight into the Chinese context, but China and the Chinese are not monolithic and teaching practices shouldn’t be defended with long dead philosophers or ancient wisdom.