Teaching the LaoWai


Today, the 60-odd MOE Chinese teachers began our two weeks’ learning in the University’s International Cultural School. This morning, we sat in the lessons with the foreign students who have come to Shanghai to learn Chinese as a second language.

The University embraces all things traditional. It still uses chalk and the blackboard, and the teaching is very much teacher-centred. That means, the teacher will stand at the podium and just talk for hours, seldom pausing to interact with the students.

Very little also is done at the beginning of the lesson to “create a need for learning”, but I suppose that’s not really necessary if you have a whole class full of focused and motivated learners.

One teacher chided the class made up of students from Korea, Italy, the US, Switzerland, Belgium and other Western countries when they failed to tell her what’s “toothpaste” in Mandarin.

“Sylvia, did you bring your toothpaste from Italy?” the teacher asked. “No, I bought it in Shanghai.” the student answered in her best Mandarin. “So, you should see the word ‘toothpaste’ everyday when you brush your teeth. Why makes it so hard for you to answer this question? You should be using your dictionary to look up on words you don’t know. Words which you come across daily! It’s not difficult. It’s just whether you want to do it or not.”

In another class, a student wanted to ask the teacher the meaning of a word, but was told “the answer would be given another time”.

This is the traditional way of teaching and learning. The way I was brought up on. To fear and respect the teacher. To do my work and give my best. To look for the teacher when I needed help – he certainly wouldn’t come and ask me if everything’s well. Students had to learn to find his own answers and study independently rather than wait for the teacher to spoon-feed them.

It feels rather strange yet familiar to come across this style of teaching after my stint at the College, where I had developed my own style of the other extreme.

I feel for the students who were fervently jotting down every word the teachers scribbled on the board. To hear them getting the tones for the Chinese words mixed up. To hear them struggling to string a sentence together. To see them being scolded when they give a wrong answer.

“I quit my job as an engineer to come to learn how to speak Chinese,” said a Belgian guy. “Unfortunately, we focus a lot on writing and reading and don’t get to speak much.”

“About 1/3 of our foreign students do not do well enough for us to grant them their degrees. I am not ashamed to admit this, but quite proud on the contrary. This shows we have a high standard and do not pass people for the sake of passing people. We must uphold our quality and reputation.” shared the director of the School.

Somehow I prefer this traditional way of doing things.

Explore posts in the same categories: Education, School

2 Comments on “Teaching the LaoWai”

  1. fefe Says:

    I think that explained why this method didn’t work well on me and why till today I dread the thought of learning Mandarin because of such teacher. Sorry, bad experience here! Niu? Wu? Whatever!

  2. tintedglasses Says:

    Many of the MOE teachers were discussing over lunch and saying that this very teacher-centred way of teaching without educational aids would not work on Singaporean kids. I think we were all shocked if you like by what we observed in the classroom. But then again this is a University, so we can’t really compared that with our schools.


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