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Studying Schools Abroad for Deeper Understanding at Home: School of Education Makes Connections in China

July 9, 2014

Chinese classroom

Drexel’s connections with China include institutional partnerships, a summer trip for the men’s basketball team and a Drexel alumnus in the president’s chair at a new university in Shanghai. And you can add another to that list: A growing set of School of Education professors is studying, collaborating, and sharing research with educators in China.

Dominic Gullo, PhD, professor of early childhood education; Rebecca Clothey, PhD, assistant professor of higher education; and Jennifer Adams, EdD, associate clinical professor of educational leadership and management, are all involved with this outreach.

When Gullo attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference in 2013, he met Wang Huamin, director of the China National Society of Early Childhood Education. Haumin invited him to China to address teachers, directors, professors, and program administrators on best practices and research in early childhood education.

“There’s a huge misunderstanding about what the field of education is,” said Clothey.

“Many people think it’s only about training teachers. Having a conversation and dialogue may give us new ways to look at old problems. That’s why I advocate for looking beyond your backyard.”

A Different Interpretation

While published research is readily available internationally, interpretation is not universal. According to Gullo, the Chinese educators he met at the NAEYC conference were already familiar with research in the U.S., and many were designing early childhood programs based on what they were reading. But he found that their understanding and interpretation of the research was different from the domestic perspective.

For the most part, Gullo said, Chinese preschools have developed along the same lines as those in the U.S. and Europe. But Chinese practice has created some interesting and potentially beneficial variations. Gullo gave an example of how No Child Left Behind has pushed the first-grade curriculum into preschool and kindergarten, which are becoming increasingly academic and less child-centered, with math and reading taking time away from play and art.

When Chinese educators read about this, they began to add more reading and math in early childhood education, but they did not eliminate art and play.

“Instead, they are introducing reading and math through art and play,” Gullo said.

This mutual discovery will lead to more collaboration with his counterparts in China.

Just as Chinese researchers are interested in learning about U.S. practices, Clothey studies advances in China, particularly among the Uyghur ethnic minority members in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where she is currently a visiting scholar.

Chinese education is especially important now because it is a growing economy, increasing an average of eight percent per year for the last 20 years.

“To give you a sense of how things have changed, I first went to China in 1993,” said Clothey. “It wasn’t a place that people were thinking about in the U.S. Now traveling to China is not unusual or exotic; it’s prominent in world politics.”

Clothey has spent more than five years living in and traveling the country since 1993. That time on the ground was essential to her current role as a researcher. In Chinese culture, relationships and ties matter.

“Having a network is important there. In China, it’s almost impossible to make an appointment,” Clothey said. “You have to establish a relationship with someone, [then] they’ll help you by answering questions, or introducing you to someone who will.”

Now she’s leveraging ties she’s built over the years as a visiting scholar in Xinjiang Normal University, in the Uyghur region where Western scholars rarely study.

Clothey chose to study internationalism in this provincial area because it relates to affirmative action. Minority students from the Uyghur region are more likely to go to the regional Xinjiang Normal University, rather than a more prestigious one located in Beijing.

“China is an ethnically diverse country, which a lot of people don’t realize,” she said.

“I’m mainly interested in higher education and how China approaches it, particularly in the Northwest region of Xinjiang, because it’s a Muslim area and completely different from other parts of China.”

Deeper Understanding

Jennifer Adams, who joined the School of Education in 2013, studied Chinese as an undergraduate, completed a Beijing exchange and worked as a teacher in Taiwan and Hong Kong before completing her PhD at Harvard University. This unfolded during the 1990s, a time of dramatic social and economic transformation in China that shaped the future of education research.

“In China’s interior regions, there was no tax base to support schooling, and kids were dropping out of school because [the schools] were charging fees, even though they were public,” Adams said.

Adams first collaborations in China were with fellow graduate students on the Rural Education Action Project, generating experiment-based research studies on K-12 rural education programs and the experiences of young Chinese students, and with the Gansu Survey of Children and Families, investigating family, school, and community factors that support education and healthy development in northwest China.

Her long-time collaborators are now faculty members as well, creating a powerful research network in China and the U.S.Adams plans to parlay her research into involvement with SoE work in Philadelphia schools.

“Studying poverty in rural China is different from studying experiences at a resource-constrained school in Philadelphia, but some things may be the same,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn about your own culture by more deeply understanding another place.”

More Collaboration to Come

Connections between the School of Education and colleagues abroad are yielding further collaborations. Diya Hu, a visiting Drexel scholar from China, plans to be a liaison between Drexel and Minzu University of China in the future, arranging visits from Drexel faculty to Minzu and to the International Conference on Teacher’s Education, which will be held there in October 2014.

Gullo also will continue further exchange with his connections in China.

“We were talking about having visiting scholars from China — early childhood experts-- work with faculty here and [vice versa],” Gullo said. “I was invited to go to China Women’s University in May as a visiting scholar to talk about American early childhood education, and have their faculty come to the U.S.”

He has also been invited to write an article for China’s Journal of Early Childhood Education titled “Using what we know to create exemplary early-childhood programs in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten: An American perspective.”

Adams is already planning more comparative cross-cultural work, weaving connections between rural China and urban Philadelphia.

“Early in my career, I was asked, ‘Why are you trying to learn about poverty in China when there are so many struggling schools here?’” she said. “We are finding that these experiences speak to each other. We can help policymakers use the information that we have for better decisions in both places.”