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My Trip to China

A few days ago I arrived home after a two-week trip to China. We spent a few days doing things that were unabashedly tourist-related, like going to the Great Wall, visiting the Temple of Heaven, and exploring the Forbidden City in Beijing.

We rode bikes on the city wall of Xi’an (it’s not as weird as it sounds, I promise) and checked out the Terra Cotta Soldiers, which was super-crowded but also super-awesome.

But we also spent a week in Yueyang City with the Hunan Institute of Science and Technology, a university that we often partner with. We led seminar discussions and gave guest lectures. It was both nerve-wracking and exciting to share the LAUNCH Cycle with professors and students in their education department. I was so nervous that my shirt was completely drenched. Thankfully, my sports coat hid it well.

You can’t tell by the picture, but that yellow tie became polka dotted when I attempted to eat noodles with chopsticks and splatted grease everywhere.

 One of the highlights for me involved visiting a middle school and high school.

We were there to observe the differences between Chinese and U.S. education. But for all the systemic differences I observed, I was struck by the fact that a 13-year-old in China is so similar to the 13-year-olds I used to teach — awkward, brilliant, hopeful, loud, bashful, insecure, worried about their peer group and wanting so badly to make it in this world. I felt, in this moment, a deep connection to the classroom. It was a reminder of the shared humanity that exists in any classroom anywhere. I missed teaching middle school. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not planning to leave my job as a professor. I love working with pre-service teacher. Still, it reminded me of why I loved teaching middle school.

But it also had me thinking about one of my biggest epic fail projects as a middle school teacher.

An Epic Fail in Global Collaboration

Four years ago, I attempted a global collaboration project that totally tanked. My students were supposed to work with students at a school in China to solve a problem using design thinking. However, after a week and a half of struggling, we canceled the project altogether. We had run into issues with the Great Firewall (the Chinese filtering system), time differences, resources, and logistical issues.

At the time, I assumed that I had simply failed as a teacher. I just wasn’t cut out for global collaboration. I wasn’t organized enough to make the global collaboration a reality. That was my internal lesson at the time. But now I’m now reflecting on this idea of global collaboration after spending two weeks in China. Here are some of my takeaways about how I would handle a global collaboration project differently.

#1: Get to Know Each Other First

We called the project the Flat World Social Studies Project. However, the world is not flat. For all the talk of globalization connecting people around the world, there are still huge differences in worldview and cultural norms. I noticed some significant differences in how U.S. students and Chinese students define respect, social hierarchy, compliance, order, and competition in the classroom.

Consider how both cultures approach creativity. The U.S. is messy, open, and decentralized. China is stable, systematic, and centralized. So, when we approach creative projects, this impacts our perceptions on things like planning, iterative thinking, and rapid prototyping. It changes our approach to research (in a closed versus open information system), how we communicate, and how we view the planning process.

Looking back on it, I made the mistake of assuming that the design thinking process would translate across culture rather than asking, “how does culture transform the creative approach?” I should have asked, “What does design thinking look like in China and how is it similar and different to the U.S.?”

I was arrogant. I didn’t take the time to learn from the Chinese culture. I made assumptions about what was normal and, in the process, I failed to build trust.

If we want to make global collaboration a reality, we need to recognize that cultural differences will impact our creative approach. This is why I love the idea of cultural humility. Here, students assume the stance of a learner and begin from a place of empathy rather than expertise. They realize that it takes time to understand the nuances and layers of culture and they recognize that different doesn’t have to mean right/wrong. Sometimes different is just different, and that’s okay.

If I were to do global collaborative projects again, I would spend weeks giving students the opportunity to ask questions and listen. We would take time to learn about the Chinese culture. I would encourage students to build relationships on a personal level. Then I would spend time working together to define what the creative process would look like when students work collaboratively.

#2: Find the Shared Values

When I visited a middle school in Yueyang, a student walked up to me and asked, “Do you like My Little Pony?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I watch it with my daughter,” I answered.

“Who is your favorite character?”

“I like Twilight Sparkle.”

He nodded his head. “Me, too.”

“Really? Is she your favorite character?” I asked.

“No, I like Rainbow Dash the best.”

The conversation continued akwardly for a few minutes. He had to think hard about his words in English — which was better than me. My Chinese was nearly non-existence.

At the end, he said, “So, we are both Bronies, then?”

I laughed. “I guess so.”

This was one of my favorite moments of the trip. It was a small, seemingly insignificant bridge between cultures. But it was a reminder that we enjoy the same stories — even as childish as these might seem. We care about the same characters.

Later, when we met up with the teachers, one woman said, “Teaching is an act of love. It’s about relationships.” Another teacher said, “I love what I am doing but I wish we could do more creative projects. I want my students to become makers.” In this moment, I was reminded of the shared values we have as educators. We want something similar for our students, despite the fact that we live on opposite sides of the globe.

As I think about global collaboration, I wonder if we need to start with shared values and desires. What are the bridges we can build? What are the things we have in common? It’s true that there are major cultural differences but what are the universal human experiences that transcend these differences? And how do we build on those so that the partnerships are actually real?

#3: Identify the Systemic Challenges Ahead of Time

After presenting on design thinking, a student asked, “Why isn’t Chinese education promoting creativity?” I listened as they discussed the research of Yong Zhao and the bigger questions around creativity, innovation, and design.

They discussed their concerns about time constraints, a crowded curriculum, a lack of resources, the fear of students not passing the tests, the huge class sizes (sometimes in the mid-fifties) and concerns about certain sites being blocked. For what it’s worth, these are the same issues we run into in the United States. Schools block YouTube and even Google Drive. We face a high-pressure system of tests and ranking. Our classrooms are sometimes overcrowded. These things impact how we engage in student global collaborative projects.

But there are also local differences that make a huge difference as well. In the U.S., we have COPPA, CIPA, FERPA, and other policies that impact what digital tools students can use. In China, they have the Great Firewall. These policy differences impact the technology ecoystem that students experience as they engage in collaboration.

Consider the popularity of WeChat in China. It’s a fascinating super app. Take five minutes to check out the video about it:

I would love to use WeChat with students in global collaboration. The walkie-talkie function, small group chats, and video conferencing are great for communication. However, WeChat clearly violates COPPA and CIPA because of the data mining and filtering. On the other hand, Chinese students cannot use Google Drive for collaboration because Google is blocked in China. So, this creates some very real issues around technology tools.

Or consider the issue of time. The time zone differences (15 hours) mean students are working on different days. All communication must be asynchronous, unless they are willing to meet outside of the normal school hours.

Is it even possible?

It’s easy to look at these challenges and conclude that global collaboration cannot work between Chinese and American students. That’s was my conclusion four years ago. But I’m convinced that global collaboration is powerful for students. And I’m convinced that creative teachers figure out ways to embrace creative constraint and treat challenges as opportunities for innovation.

Here’s where I am hopeful. The two pre-service teachers on our trip were able to form relationships with fellow preservice teachers in China. My hope is that as the relationships grow and the trust increases, they are able to create collaborative experiences with their students. It might take time and the victories might seem small at first. However, if they are willing to take creative risks and approach the situation with cultural humility, they can pull off something that I was never able to do when I taught middle school. They can build global collaborative partnerships.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

One Comment

  • Yundan says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for this post of trip to China!

    I am from China and now a master student of education studying in Finland. It is interesting to read your trial of creative design with Chinese students and reflection upon the cultural differences. It is easy to understand the frustration and trouble you experienced as one who is more familiar with the Chinese education system.

    I also believe that the future of collaborative design projects between US and Chinese students or teachers is highly possible. But you need to pick the right group of students.

    Thanks for sharing all your ideas and projects!

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