The type of teaching we do at Aihua is raw and primeval. During your first week of teaching with us, you will find yourself in a classroom with young students who have almost no English. You will have your Chinese co-teacher together in the room with you, but you don’t want her to speak, as you need to lead the class, and you need to establish the classroom language as English. They are all looking at you, waiting for you to lead, to teach. What do you do?
You don’t share a language with your students, so you need to use gestures, tone and intonation, human warmth and character. The skills you will learn in this classroom are very transferable. Having won over your students, you will have developed subtle, almost subliminal tricks and techniques that can be used for dealing with any audience. No group of adults will be as much of a challenge as your first group of children with no English.
Don’t worry though, you will be well trained, and ready for the challenge before you enter your first class. You will have a solid repertoire of activities as arrows in your quiver. You will have had a chance to watch more experienced colleagues teaching, and you will have done demo classes with your colleagues.
On your first day in class you should bear in mind that Aihua teaching is all about having fun. This should be easy for you, because China has a strong tradition of respect for teachers, and you will feel this from your students. Apart from a bit of youthful exuberance, you will find your students to be very well behaved, and a pleasure to deal with. Teaching young students is rewarding because the results of your efforts are so apparent. When you deal with a class of young students you can be sure that all of the English that they have is the result of your teaching. When teaching older students, this is not always so clear: they come into the class with a bit of English, and they leave the class with a bit of English. The effect of your teaching is not always apparent.
As members of the private education sector, we identify the weaknesses and shortcomings of the public education system, in order to create a system that supplements for these shortcomings. Throughout the world, public school systems have problems. China’s educational system faces particular challenges, due to the large numbers of students in classes, and due to a very entrenched examination culture.
The public school system compels children to undergo identical training for the identical positions of low level clerks. This is a pity, because even houseplants thrive under distinct conditions: this plant likes a lot of sunshine; this plant likes less; this plant likes a lot of water once a week; this plant likes a little water every day. If houseplants thrive under different conditions, what about children?
At Aihua, we have small classes, and two teachers working together with these classes, so that the teachers have the opportunity to get to get to know each student, and to learn what makes each student tick. Having such small classes, and knowing what makes each student tick, let’s us gear our approach specifically to the nature of each student.
Public schools systems are exam focussed, and they are not concerned with creativity, independent thinking or self development, as these qualities are subjective, and not easy to quantify through examinations. Public school education tends to be teacher-centred and subject-focussed. Students are seen as vessels to be filled with equal measures of identical information.
At Aihua, we don’t see education as the filling of a bucket, but instead as the lighting of a fire. Our students don’t learn English in order to pass examinations, but instead in order to communicate in a friendly and interesting way with a friendly and interesting foreign teacher. They learn English to get to know, and to have fun with, their foreign teacher. This type of student-teacher relationship enables our teacher to encourage our students’ interests, and develop their curiosity, and desire to learn. This also means that they learn English in a natural way, for real communication, and not boring piece by boring piece in preparation for an exam.
We feel that our customers should not want their children to learn English at Aihua in order to prepare them for public school exams, or so that their children can grow up to be international business people. Instead, we think that they should bring their children to learn English with us because of the early developmental window for language learning that is possessed by children. All experts agree that the younger a child is the more easily that child can learn language, and that only very young children, from about 0 – 7, can learn a language as a native speaker. Children should learn languages because children are linguistic geniuses, and as they grow older, they will not have the same ability to learn language that they do when the are young.
It is important for parents to help children to get the most out of their early ability to learn language, and it is a mistake for parents to think of language learning in terms of exams. If children learn English early enough, and in a natural way, passing exams will be no problem for them, because they will have native speaking abilities.
At Aihua we feel that it is also important to recognise the extent to which language development and social development are tied together. In the same way that children learn a language by mimicking other people, they also develop their characters by mimicking the people around them. These two developments are inseparable. In fact, children can often have different language personalities. A child can be one sort of person in one language and another sort of a person in another language. As we teach children a language, we can’t help but set the examples from which our students will develop their characters. The moral onus on parents and teachers to behave in a way that they would like to see their children and students behave is very heavy for this reason.
Language itself is an empty vessel, a cup. We fill this cup with meaning and pass it to other people. The wrong type of language teaching — teaching for exams, for example — neglects to fill this cup with meaning, or actual interaction, and passes to the student only an empty cup. This is a terrible neglect of responsibility, because when we are in a position to guide our students in the development of their characters, we show nothing but disinterest. Not only that, but the lack of social interaction in this style of teaching means that the language does not adhere. If we pass a cup that is empty the student will toss it away.
The most important thing that we should fill this cup with is social skills, with practice in interacting with other people in real situations. We should use language teaching to encourage children to live out issues of honesty, fairness, modesty, politeness, humour, love and respect. As Aihua teachers, we should engage our children in these issues through stories, through role play, and through real interaction. Social interaction, and social skills, are not often a part of the measure of information passed to students in public school education. At Aihua, we recognise and utilise the essential link between language learning and social development.
One of the biggest problems in teaching English in China is the problem of daily exposure. It is better for children to spend 10 minutes a day learning English than it is for them to spend 70 minutes one day a week. There have been many attempts to solve the problem of daily exposure through the development of online learning systems, talking pens, and other gimmicky audio visual resources. These resources are not as helpful as they might be however, because language learning is social, and people learn language best from real people, and from interacting in real — not modelled — social situations. Also, talking pens do nothing to develop children’s desire to learn, or their social selves.
At Aihua, we try to solve the problem of daily exposure through allowing our students to have regular communication with our foreign teachers on wechat. This is not perfect, of course, but at least the students have the opportunity to interact with real people in nearly real time; to pass the cup of language back and forth actively, in social interaction. The ideal situation for wechat learning is for the parents to be in the room, practicing English together with the student while they communicate with a foreign teacher on wechat. This should enable family learning, and family bonding. On our excursions also students are able to communicate with their teachers freely and naturally, and not in a classroom based situation.
One of the reasons that daily exposure is more conducive to language learning than weekly exposure, is that with daily exposure there is more opportunity for students to use the language they have learned for real communication. Until language that has been learned in the classroom is used for real communication, it floats around the top of the brain, without finding a permanent place. Once the language learned is used for real communication, it is imbedded in the brain, in a permanent place. This is why a school’s English speaking environment is important, and one of the many reasons that foreign teachers are so helpful. If a student wants to communicate with one of our foreign teachers, he needs to speak to that teacher in English.
In learning language, it is also very important that children should feel a sense of ownership over the language they are learning. This is one of the biggest problems with the way that language is taught in public schools. The students feel that the language is something that is coming at them from the outside, something that is being poured into them, and that is is not something that belongs to them.
The worst mistake parents can make when encouraging their children to learn language is to pressure them. So many times a child who has been producing language in the class leaves the class and is grabbed by a parent who barks “what did you learn today.” The child immediately closes the doors and says nothing. Parents should not pressure their children to show learning results. The child’s genius for language learning means that even if children are not producing the language, their exposure to the language assures that they are learning. They can’t help but learn: they are at the stage when they are sponges to languages.
At Aihua, we encourage children to use language as a toy, to bounce words around the room like balloons. It is crucial that children should not feel intimidated by the language, or pressurised to learn. Children love toys, and the best toy of all is language. Exam focussed learning will never make children feel that the language belongs to them, and it will never produce native speakers. Conversely, children who feel that the language belongs to them, who have the attitude of native speakers, will never be intimidated by an exam.
Students in Beijing have so much pressure at school. We do not want to add to that pressure, and we do not feel that adding to that pressure is helpful. At Aihua, we make learning a joy. Our students learn by playing, and having fun.
If you want to learn a bit more about teaching at Aihua, have a look at a description of our flagship teaching program, Elysium English.
Education is the lighting of a fire,
and not the filling of a bucket.