RDFZ, Part 1

In Spring 2015, I had the privilege of visiting RDFZ, the High School Affiliated to Renmin University, in Beijing. RDFZ is considered the top high school in China and likes to collect sister schools across the planet. I went as a representative of IMSA along with Dr. Lee Eysturlid (history) and Dr. Anita White (chemistry).

Tiananmen Square

Dr. Anita White, Dr. Lee Eysturlid, and I at Tiananmen Square

RDFZ rolled out the red carpet for us. Being introduced to an assembly of the entire student body was a bit surreal.

A Warm Welcome

An RDFZ assembly

As part of our trip, we got to take in the sights of the city (the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Winter Palace, the Temple of Heaven), but most of our time was spent observing and discussing. I’ll share some of my notes from classroom observations in later posts, but I’d like to share some results of the discussions now.

Going into my trip, I had heard some rumblings about the Chinese education system: the classes are huge, formal, and hard. Those rumors are all true. Since RDFZ is China’s premier high school, it is able to limit class sizes to 45-50. Less privileged schools, I was told, will have classes of 70-80 students. The students are, by sheer necessity, more disciplined, because a class of 5 dozen unfocused children would be completely unmanageable. And the classes I saw were hard, which one should expect at such a selective admissions school.

But those rumors miss several key components of RDFZ’s system. First, teachers there spend significantly less time in the classroom – only around 10 hours in a typical week. It’s hard for American teachers, who are used to 25 hours per week of instruction time, to imagine a world with so much prep time. What do they do with all those extra hours? Part of the answer is that they spend much more time crafting lessons. They collaborate with their colleagues. They grade. That brings me to … Second, they grade a lot more homework. The teachers collect and grade homework in each of their classes every day. For all of those students. I was in disbelief when I first heard this. Isn’t that exhausting? “Yes”, they assured me. One summed it up quite succinctly: “In China, our students are less tired and our teachers are more tired.”

It is a well-known fact that smaller class sizes generally lead to better student outcomes, so much so that average class size frequently gets thrown around as a metric of student-centeredness. But research has also demonstrated that formative feedback is about the teacher’s most powerful tool to improve learning. In a sense, China’s system utilizes large class sizes in order to free up teacher time for professional development and quality feedback for students. Framed that way, large classes may be a calculated tradeoff. I think it is an interesting discussion whether that tradeoff is worthwhile.

One of the primary concerns they expressed dealt with “shadow education”, their term for the extra work students do outside of class to get ahead. So many of their students work ahead to get a leg up that the teachers are not able to hold their attention in class. This might seem like a good problem to have, but it is a problem nonetheless. “How do Americans deal with shadow education?”, they asked. Simply put, we don’t. It is not a big enough problem for us to have named it, let alone attempt to solve it. Still, IMSA does preempt those issues by allowing students to test into courses at their own level and offering electives as outlets for students wanting more advanced work. Neither of those solutions was available to RDFZ. There, students took their courses together at grade level all the way through high school. Deviating from that path was not allowed, and there was no room left in the day for electives. RDFZ was proud of a fledgling “optional courses” program which they marketed as electives, but in reality, they ran more like extracurricular activities: they did not meet regularly, they were not graded, and faculty sponsors were on a strictly volunteer basis. The Chinese teachers and administrators were intrigued by the idea of implementing proper differentiation in their students’ schedules, but unfortunately, there were too many political obstacles since so many of their educational parameters are set by the government.

I learned an incredible amount during my week in China, culturally and professionally, and I would definitely recommend it to any other teachers. For those who can’t make it, I hope these few blog posts can do justice in conveying some of those lessons. For those who do plan to make the voyage, though, let me be the first to warn you: apparently, you’re not allowed to play your trumpet.

No trumpets