The Clash of Old and New: Chinese Students’ Perceptions of Learning in the English Language Classroom

The Clash of Old and New:

Chinese Students’ Perceptions of Learning

in the English Language Classroom

 I remember when I was in college, my [English] teacher always focused on the vocabulary, the grammar, and you know, we Chinese students can all get higher scores on the English examination, but we can’t speak very fluent English, actually.  So that’s a real problem, we call our education “exam-oriented” education. We are towards educational shift, a paradigm shift. We want to change our education from exam-oriented to quality-oriented. Novella, Chinese graduate student at East China Normal University, Shanghai

Leslie and Meredith with a group of students from East China Normal University who study Comparative Education and Higher Education.

Leslie and Meredith with a group of students from East China Normal University who study Comparative Education and Higher Education. Photo Sean Bates.

Such is the case for many Chinese students learning languages.  There have been efforts to change the university language classroom toward a more communicative approach, but major changes take time, especially when the new methodology conflicts with traditional educational philosophy.  In this case, Confucian philosophy of education has been the dominant paradigm for centuries.  My project focuses on the experiences of Chinese English language students in Chinese universities.  First, we will look at the students’ perceptions of the shortcomings of their English language classrooms, then I will connect these experiences to the cultural roots of Confucianism.  Afterwards, I will sketch efforts of East-West projects to bring more communicative approaches to Chinese classrooms.  My interest in this subject is due to my background of English language (English as a Second Language or ESL) teaching of international students in the U.S. and abroad.  It is therefore interesting to me to learn more about the English language classroom in China – the philosophy, the pedagogy, the processes of teaching and learning.  My purpose for this study was to understand the ways in which English language students use or intend to use English and how teaching and learning in the English language classroom in China support these needs.

Background:  English language learning in China has increased tremendously in the last several decades.  China’s Reform and Open Door policy of 1979 prompted increased interest in improving their global economic standing (Gu, 2005; Gu & Schweisfurth, 2006).  Therefore, since the 1980s, this participation in the global economy reinforced the dominant use of English language for international communication, causing China to seek English language training from Western countries (Gu, 2005).  Teacher trainers and other English language professionals were employed through governmental contracts to feed the great demand for English language instruction (Gu, 2005).  Along with these Western professionals came Western methodology, various communicative approaches to language learning.  The focus of communicative approaches is to produce students who can communicate with native speakers (understand and be understood) in both speaking and writing (Ellis, 1996).  To learn more about one of these approaches, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) click here (Richards-Communicative-Language).

Communicative Language Teaching focuses the communication skill building of the students, putting students as center of the learning process.  Indeed, this communicative style of teaching that became dominant in foreign language teaching in the 1980s went hand-in-hand with the paradigm shift from teacher-centered learning to learner-centered learning (Barr & Tagg, 1995), also gaining favor with educators.  Unfortunately, “…the history of the implementation of learner-centered education in different contexts is riddled with stories of failures grand and small…a culturally nuanced perspective raises questions about how teaching and learning are understood in different contexts, and about whether LCE is ultimately a ‘western’ construct inappropriate for application in all societies and classrooms” (Schweisfurth, 2011, p. 425).  The communicative approach to language teaching has conflicted with Confucian-heritage principles about education, one critical principle being the centrality of the teacher’s authority (Hu, 2005).

To learn a more about Confucian-influenced education, we can look at principles of a Confucian-based classroom.  Confucianism has been the basis of Chinese education since his academies in 5th century B.C.  Chinese school reform in the early 1900s reiterated the centuries-old principles of Confucianism: the Three Bonds and the Five Constant Virtues.  The Three Bonds are 1) loyalty on the part of the subject to the ruler, 2) filial obedience on the part of son to father, and 3) submission on the part of wife to husband.  The Five Constant Virtues are desired characteristics of human beings: humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness.  Propriety is important for education, as it refers to following traditions, especially respecting elders and superiors (including teachers) (Yuan, 2004).  In Confucius’ Analects there is a saying, “A noble man does not consider things outside his position” then goes on to state, “What a student’s position requires is to strictly observe school discipline and to be proficient in his studies” (Yuan, 2004, p. 196).  The teacher is therefore the center of learning and in the position of authority, creating a traditional teacher-centered paradigm.  The student must realize his place, which is to be a student—learn from the master.

Is this very different from our own classroom in the U.S.?  How does a Confucian-influenced classroom differ from others?  Hofstede’s (1980) cultural dimensions are one way to gain a comparative perspective of the differences between the culture of a Confucian-based educational system and a more individualistic-based classroom such as the American classroom.  In an international study exploring cultural values of one company, IBM, Hofstede, a social psychologist, defined cultural values into four dimensions: power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, and uncertainty avoidance.  Later, two more dimensions were added: future orientation and indulgence vs. restraint.  Although Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are often criticized as not being fluid and overly country-bound, these dimensions have been useful tools for understanding general tendencies of certain regions.  The cultural dimension related closely to the Chinese classroom is the Power Distance Index.  In the classroom, the power distance means that there is great distance between the teacher and the student.  To see Hofstede’s (2001) descriptions of these cultural dimensions and China’s “score”, click here: China’s cultural assessment according to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions.  As you will see, China’s power distance index is scored at 80.  Hofstede’s website offers this interpretation:

At 80 China sits in the higher rankings of PDI – i.e. a society that believes that inequalities amongst people are acceptable. The subordinate-superior relationship tends to be polarized and there is no defense against power abuse by superiors. Individuals are influenced by formal authority and sanctions and are in general optimistic about people’s capacity for leadership and initiative. People should not have aspirations beyond their rank.  

See Geert Hofstede’s rating of Chinese culture on several dimensions: Cultural dimensions comparison between China & U.S.

Notice also how China’s scores compare to the U.S.:

Notice how high China’s score is (blue bar) on the power distance index compared to the U.S. (brown bar). This is important to the Chinese classroom – teachers have clear authority; inequality is expected. Generated from

Trying to import a western approach would be quite difficult and demand more than just teacher training for some new methodology!  As much as the Chinese government wanted their students to learn to communicate in English through the investment of English language teaching, the student-centered approaches the Westerners were importing required a major paradigm shift for Chinese educators (Schweisfurth, 2011; Thompson, 2013).  In fact, the adoption of a communicative approach, or most other western methods for that matter, requires the redefinition of the student-teacher relationship.

Clearly, forcing a paradigm shift on the teachers was not always successful, but what about the younger generation?  In their internet and media-connected world, do they reject the highly communicative student-centered classroom?  From their responses to our questions, the graduate students noted that what was missing the most from their English language learning was communication.

Getting to the data:  We (Leslie, Meredith, Sean) posed many questions about English language learning to the Chinese graduate students: How do you use English?  What English skills do you believe you need?  How do you obtain those skills (or not)?  How do your English classes contribute to obtaining those skills? What is missing?

Following are some of their responses:

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  •  How do you use English?


Many of the students said that one of the major reasons, if not immediate, is to succeed in English class!  Jiang and Bo from Shaanxi Normal University said that, “Sometimes we just use it for reading.  If we need some information in a foreign language, we use English to read it” (personal communication, March 5, 2013).  Jiang noted that most of the articles they read in class are in Chinese, but some are in English.

Leslie and I with students at Shaanxi Normal University. We interviewed them in the second half of sitting in on their Sociology of Higher Education class.

Meredith and Leslie with Jiang and Bo at Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an. Photo Sean Bates.

  •  What English skills do you believe you need?
  • How do you obtain those skills (or not)?  (See clip of “difficulties”)
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The students believed they needed the grammatical base they received in primary and secondary levels (see clip of Alice), but they often cited a need for speaking skills. For example, Alice from East China Normal University in Shanghai talked about memorization, a method consistent with traditional Chinese classroom practices.  She considers this learning a “solid foundation” as central in her primary and secondary level years of learning English (Side-bar with related information and links)(or see note at very bottom of this post).  However, once she started college, she said that communication became more important, but lack of international students with whom to converse limited communication.  Novella said,

 After I came to Shanghai, there are a lot of foreigners, so I knew I could get good exam scores but I couldn’t have a good conversation with native speakers like you. That was my real problem, so I wanted to watch Friends so that maybe I could communicate with you. But after college that was my real problem.  I think most of our students can’t communicate with native speakers, we just can read and write very well; we just can’t communicate.

Likewise, Jiang from Shaanxi Normal University said that speaking instead of just reading would be helpful: “We have no chance to speak English – we only have Chinese students to speak to” (personal communication, March 5, 2013).  Therefore, these students took it upon themselves to learn communication skills.  For example, Alice said due to lack of communication opportunities, “I had to talk with myself” (personal communication, March 8, 2013).  Jiang also said, “When I came into this university, I think English is very important so I am learning English according to myself” (personal communication, March 5, 2013).

Sabrina noted that speaking is of utmost importance to her:

 Speak more, that’s the most important one.  Even if you have your vocabulary or your grammar, the communication, if you don’t speak a lot, you can forget a lot of vocabulary.  So now I feel like my English is a little rusty, because I didn’t speak English for a long time.  Because before I worked in a company, an American company, and every day I talked to my boss and my client was from the U.S.  At that time my English was so fluent, and now I think my English is a little rusty.

There was hardly a conversation we had with the students when they did not cite speaking skills as what they lacked the most.  Unfortunately, most of their English professors either do not have time to move beyond grammar study or do not want to focus on communication skills.  Therefore, they take it upon themselves to creatively educate themselves, particularly in watching TV, reading, and “talking to themselves”.

  •  How do your English classes contribute to obtaining those skills? What is missing?

Jiang said that her English language professor “asks us to read from the textbook and asks us to comment on the text” (personal communication, March 5, 2013).  Some of the students have had foreign teachers, but being a native speaker does not a teacher make.  Jiang and Bo said they had a foreign teacher and she just taught them how to speak to foreigners.  The teacher gave information and cultural background about their country.  Jiang thinks it was good to learn more about a foreign country, but it did not help English.  The teacher and teaching was not very “responsible”.  For example, the students could only meet the English teacher in class (not outside).  Again, she said she had to teach herself – “so many things to ask myself to do it” – in other words, independent learning.  Nevertheless, Jiang and Bo preferred the native English speaker.  When asked if their Chinese teachers were more effective, Linda said, “I think the foreign teacher can give us more normal English communication skills” (personal communication, March 5, 2013).  (See clip “Kinds of activities”)

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From these interviews and other experiences I have had, I believe many of today’s Chinese students are anxious to add a communicative approach to the English language classroom.  However, this is easier said than done.  Is it that students are ready, but professors are not?  With an examination-based educational system at the secondary level, perhaps the English teachers feel they have no choice but to continue to teach to the test (a bit like our SOLs!).  Not necessarily—when surveying Chinese English language professors about their experience with communicative approaches toward English language teaching, the data demonstrated that the Chinese teachers were inclined to incorporate communicative approaches in their language teaching, but they strived to integrate both the western methodology with the Chinese traditional methods (Gu & Schweisfurth, 2006).  This is good news, because the students need communication for their education and jobs, therefore, adding some kind of communicative component to the language classroom is in the best interest of the students.  In order to translate a western communicative approach to the Confucian-based educational system found in China, it would be necessary to translate the approach into something more culturally acceptable and appropriate as well an appreciation of what is involved in this paradigm shift (Thompson, 2013).  Finding that happy medium between the old and the new – what the teachers are comfortable with and what the students need and want is something that each teacher must wrestle with.

There is no doubt from our conversations with the Chinese graduate students that internationalization is playing a part in making English language classrooms, nay, MOST classrooms in China more communicative.  It may be that the shifting toward a more student-centered, communicative approach will ease its way into the classroom in an organic manner.

Jiang and Bo at Shaanxi Normal University

Jiang and Bo at Shaanxi Normal University. Photo Leslie Bohon.

Case in point from this conversation with Novella at East China Normal University:

 Novella: I remember when I was in college, one of our professors will give us a course and he will give us a video of Harvard University, some famous professor there lectures so I can know what happens in the U.S.A, that’s a great way I think.

Meredith: Did you find differences in the way that professor taught his students?

Novella: Of course! Totally different from ours, our teacher just told us to watch the videos and say nothing but maybe you can think about yourself. But the professor from Harvard University, they will discuss, he will give them the freedom to discuss, to talk about your own opinion. I think this is very good.


It is becoming a small world, after all!





Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995, Nov/Dec). From teaching to learning – A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27(6), 12-25. Retrieved from

Ellis, G. (1996). How culturally appropriate is the communicative approach? ELT Journal, 50(3), 213-218. Ellis (1996) – for China project

Gu, Q. (2005). The perception gap in cross-cultural training: An investigation of British Council English language teaching projects in China. International Journal of Educational Development, 25(3), 287-304. Gu (2005). for China project

Gu, Q. & Schweisfurth, M. (2006). Who adapts? Beyond cultural models of ‘the’ Chinese learner, Language, Culture and Curriculum, 19(1), 74-89.Gu, Q., & Schweisfurth, M., (2006). for China project

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks CA: SAGE. Retrieved from

Hu, G. (2005). Contextual influences on instructional practices: A Chinese case for an ecological approach to ELT. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 635-660.Hu, G. (2005). for China project

Richards, J. C. (2006). Communicative language teaching today. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Richards-Communicative-Language

Schweisfurth, M. (2011). Learner-centred education in developing country contexts: From solution to problem? International Journal of Educational Development, 31, 425-432. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2011.03.005 Schweisfurth (2011) for China project

Thompson, P. (2013). Learner-centered education and ‘cultural translation’. International Journal of Educational Development, 33, 48-58. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2012.02.009 Thompson (2013) for China project

Yuan, Z. (2001). The status of Confucianism in modern Chinese education, 1901-49: A curricular study. In G. Peterson, R. Hayhoe, & Y. Lu (Eds.), Education, culture, and identity in twentieth-century China (pp. 193-216).

Note: videos by Leslie Bohon, Meredith Allred, and Sean Bates.



Of interest is Miao Miao’s comment on the necessity of a teacher-centered classroom during primary and secondary schools.  The reality of high-stakes testing demands that teachers meet a specific agenda.  In China, students must take the gaokao, or college entrance exam.  Because where a Chinese student goes to university is critical to future success, making a high score on the gaokao is paramount.  Furthermore, spots at universities are limited.  The students told us that the most prestigious universities in China have a score that they demand on the gaokao.  There is no mechanism at this time for Admissions offices in China to take a more holistic look at the student, even though Chinese university reforms place this as one of the goals for reform (see Beijing blog).  With this kind of academic pressure, it is natural for teachers to focus on teaching the content and not the student – even the parents demand it (see Meredith Allred’s comments about the importance of the gaokao)  Miao Miao’s comments about the necessity of teacher-centered classrooms speak to this issue (see video clip of Miao Miao on secondary learning).