Flathead school leaders get immersed in educational system of distant culture

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From left, Matt Jensen, Ann Minckler and Todd Fiske pose in front of a statue of Confucius.

Besides seeing such popular sites as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, three administrators on a visit from the Flathead Valley saw another part of China less well known — its schools.

West Valley Superintendent Todd Fiske, Helena Flats Superintendent Ann Minckler and Bigfork K-8 principal Matt Jensen were among 400 U.S. administrators who were part of the College Board Chinese Bridge Delegation. The delegation works with the Confucius Institute, an organization under China’s Ministry of Education that helps U.S. educators network with Chinese educators, observe China’s classrooms and learn about Chinese language and culture.

During their week-long visit Fiske, Minckler and Jensen visited Beijing and Jilin Province.

Fiske has traveled internationally and so has Minckler, but observing a foreign classroom was new.

“I was really excited to get into a foreign school see what classrooms look like, what kinds of activities students engage in and how teachers teach,” Minckler said.

The emphasis of the trip was helping U.S. educators develop Chinese language immersion classes. Chinese schools Fiske and Minckler visited had English immersion classes for students as young as third grade.

“They teach content not in their native language but in English and would like for us to do the same [with Chinese],” Minckler said.

With China’s increasing global impact, particularly in business and trade, it makes sense to offer Mandarin Chinese, but finding a teacher and funds would be difficult, which is where the Office of Public Instruction’s Digital Academy comes in. Minckler said about five Helena Flats eighth-graders are taking the language.

Chinese middle-school and high-school students start their long school day at 7:30 a.m. and when most American students are at home or in extracurriculars, Chinese students complete their day at 5:30 p.m. and either go on to do three to five hours of homework or participate in an extracurricular activity like band or choir.

Minckler said that from what she saw, China’s education system is very structured and regimented compared to the U.S. system. As far as learning standards, there is one curriculum used throughout the country and one textbook sanctioned by the Chinese government, with no separate state jurisdiction such as we have here.

“Montana has its set of standards,” Minckler said. “At the local level we use that framework to determine how we’re going to teach those content standards and select textbooks and materials to deliver instruction.”

Minckler said she did not see any group collaboration or group study. Fiske said instruction was delivered through lecture and reiteration by students.

“They were interested in learning how to educate more with manipulatives — hands-on tools,” Fiske said.

This structure is embedded in the school culture even into recess, which is not about free time or play, but thousands of students doing different exercises.

“They stand in rows and have a choreographed exercise and they all participate in unison,” Minckler said.

In a country of well over a billion residents, schools administrators saw schools that were on a scale much larger than our own. At their largest, the schools had more than 9,000 students, and even the “rural” schools  had as many as 3,000 students.

“It’s very difficult to wrap your arms around the vastness of the population — just trying to understand the size of these schools — just the number of kids alone,” Fiske said.

While classroom sizes were well above average U.S. classroom sizes, spanning 30 to 50 students in middle school and high school, students gave much reverence and respect to teachers. Fiske said. He observed that students bowed to their teachers when they entered the classroom and stood up to answer questions when called on.

One thing Fiske and Minckler saw were some students getting off task, however, showing that they were not always perfect.

“Kids will be kids,” Fiske said.

Fiske said the trip really opened up his eyes to education in another country.

“We live in a special place in Montana, but our world is absolutely enormous. Our job as educators is to open that world up for kids to learn that it’s a really big place out there,” Fiske said.

Minckler added: “While we feel remote and rural and think those relationships aren’t as important to us, I can see why it’s really important for us to expose children to other cultures. I think that bringing different experience, cultures, language opportunities for our children makes a big difference in their lives. The reality is when today’s kids go looking for jobs, or take over a family ranch or business, they’re going to have to deal with people outside our community.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com

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