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China trip creates opportunities

Building connections leads to initial agreements

Jay Yule, superintendent of schools for School District 47, recently travelled to China with a group of other Canadian district superintendents to tour educational facilities and create ties in the promotion of international programs.

Last fall Yule had an opportunity, through the BC ministry of education in conjunction with BC Council for International Education, to travel for nine days in China to meet with education administrators and tour China’s education system. Superintendents from all over Canada participated in the mission, which the Chinese government took part in to promote the Confucius Institute, a non-profit international program that promotes Chinese language and culture.

School District 47 is interested in bringing more international students to Powell River schools as well as increasing opportunities for local students and teachers to travel abroad. To achieve this Yule is working toward establishing partnerships with international schools to arrange exchange programs and ideally create international programs abroad based upon the BC curriculum. The ultimate goal is to give Powell River students a chance to experience and engage with other cultures to help raise cultural awareness and increase educational opportunities.

During the trip Yule travelled from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou in the south, making stops along the way to visit schools and discuss possibilities for international programs.

Yule found the diversity between different areas of China to be one of the most interesting aspects of his trip. Climate, culture and food all varied considerably from northern to southern China.

Yule said that trying strange and exotic foods was one of his highlights of the trip. During the trip Yule ate chicken feet, deep-fried chicken heads and scorpions, all of which he said were quite good. One his favourite moments came when a Chinese man told him that there’s nothing better than spending Saturday watching ping-pong and eating chicken feet, which made Yule instantly think of watching football and eating chicken wings. Different culture, same idea.

From an educational point of view, Yule said that there were noticeable differences in China’s educational system compared to Canada. Class sizes are much bigger and students attend classes for up to 12 hours a day. Secondary school students and teachers typically board at their schools, which are often enclosed and look like small communities within themselves, complete with housing, parks and gardens.

Schools are also tiered for levels of education, with the most successful students attending a specific school while the others attend lower strata institutions. Yule said that this creates enormous pressure to do well because if you end up in a lower level the likelihood of you going to a good university and getting a good career is substantially impacted. To coordinate this, testing in Chinese schools is highly standardized and students are constantly being compared to one another.

Despite this Yule said the students he observed and met were generally enthusiastic and happy, which went against the stereotype of the serious and intensely focused Chinese student. They were also extremely interested in learning English, which is now taught in all Chinese schools. In fact, the success of their education system combined with an ever growing presence on the world stage gave Chinese officials a confidence that there must be a strong desire for foreign students to come to China and learn Chinese, something that Yule said somewhat shook his North American-centred perspective of the relationship between the two countries.

All of the meetings with Chinese officials had a certain level of formality and politeness to them that would not typically be found in Canada, said Yule. Most meetings were held over lavish traditional meals and formal gifts were typically presented. This, combined with the fact that all conversations took place through an interpreter, convinced Yule of the importance of establishing strong personal relationships with the Chinese officials in order to reach agreements.

One aspect of Chinese education that Yule thought we could learn from in Canada is the way that exercise is incorporated into the student’s day. Two or three times a day the entire student body heads outside for up to 15 minutes of coordinated calisthenic exercise. Yule said that it has long been a struggle here to embed exercise into daily lives of students and he was impressed with the Chinese approach. Also impressive was that 3,000-plus students would be supervised by two or three teachers and everyone would be behaving themselves.

“There’s some cultural issues obviously there for us,” said Yule, who recognizes the importance of exercise as part of developing a well-rounded and educated person. “I think we still look at things like physical education as an extra or an aside rather than an integral part.”

The time Yule spent with other superintendents has now led to an agreement with school districts 91 (Netchako Lakes) and 60 (Peace North River) to combine their efforts and resources to promote international studies. They found that each had common woes with establishing international programs because of the same problems of small districts and limited resources. An initial agreement establishes a working relationship between the three school districts. Together they plan to develop their international programs on a number of fronts and have discussed the possibility of coming together to run international camps.

Yule reiterated that this is all a work in progress. All of the superintendents are working on this project off the side of their desks, as Yule put it, and its lack of priority and limited funding means that the going is slow. Yule is optimistic that an arrangement with China will come together and that as early as this summer there may be an opportunity for an exchange. Fully realizing plans of organizing an arrangement with an international school will take time, however, and other opportunities are being explored as well.

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