The Difficulties of Adapting from an Instruction Paradigm to a Learning Paradigm

Shaanxi Normal University, photo courtesy of Shaanxi Normal University

There are many differences between the Chinese and American educational systems, most notable being where they place their focus. China stresses an emphasis on achievement and high test scores above all else, demonstrating their use of the instruction paradigm. The instruction paradigm is a model of teaching in which the teachers have all the knowledge, imparting it to their students to memorize and regurgitate. While the United States has also historically operated from an instruction paradigm, it has been moving steadily into a learning paradigm since 1990. The learning paradigm places an emphasis on growth and critical thinking; supporters of the learning paradigm want to create ‘learners’, not ‘fact-memorizers’ (Barr & Tagg, 1995).

Pressures of the Instruction Paradigm

The instruction paradigm seems to lead to a lot of anxiety for students, as evidenced by the interviews I had with Chinese students both in the United States and in China. There is immense pressure to do well and receive high examination scores. This pressure comes from all sides—society at large, their family, their community, and even within themselves. There is a belief that only those who receive high test scores can do well in life, as high scores are the determining factor in a Chinese student’s ability to get into a good school, which is, in turn, the determining factor for their ability to get a valuable and high-paying job. A woman I interviewed in the United States, Tianshu, expressed it this way: “In my family, we had a saying: without education, you are nothing. I heard that over and over again when I was growing up.” Tianshu is getting her MBA from the College of William and Mary, and it is expected that once she receives her degree, she will return to China to enhance her community’s and her family’s quality of life with her new skills and training. She expresses that she will live in her parent’s home again when she returns to China, at least for a couple of years, and possibly until she is married. She is expected to still contribute to the family and remain a part of the family system, even as she reaches young adulthood. The worthiness of her contribution is judged by the level of education she attains, and the type of job she is able to secure.

Challenges in Adapting to a Learning Paradigm

Chinese students in the United States face further challenges as they try to navigate the American higher educational system. American schools lean towards a learning paradigm, which is starkly unfamiliar to most Chinese students. They are used to sitting quietly in a classroom, taking notes while the teacher lectures at them for the entire class period. It can be very intimidating to sit in an American higher education classroom, where they are often expected to ask questions, participate in discussion, and engage in active learning. Tianshu expressed that she had to rethink her approach to school, as it was often difficult to know what she needed to do in order to earn a good grade in a class. Her usual method of essentially memorizing the textbook and lectures would fall short of what she needed to do in order to succeed. It was very hard for her to speak up in class, and to become comfortable with the concept of contributing her own ideas and perspectives to a learning session. She stated that the language barrier presents an additional difficulty to participating in class the way that she needs to. While her English is good, she does not feel completely comfortable with it. She explained that it takes her a moment to translate things back and forth in her head, and that she cannot always come up with the word she is looking for. All of this makes her even more reluctant to speak up, as she worries that what she says will not come out right.

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Some schools of higher education in China are beginning to move towards this learning paradigm. However, the students we interviewed in China expressed ambivalence to the adoption of this process, including a discomfort with talking in class. On the one hand, they appreciated and valued the way the learning paradigm allowed them to do more than just memorize facts. It stimulates growth and enables them to more easily focus on what they are interested in, and not just what the teacher tells them is important to study. Yet on the other hand, it is also incredibly unfamiliar. One student I interviewed at Shaanxi Normal University, Teresa, described it as “very scary. It’s not something we were ever prepared for. I didn’t know what to expect from these classes when I first started”. Our observations of Chinese higher education classrooms, as well as interviews with students about what their classes are like, showed that while they are beginning to implement new ideas from the learning paradigm, they are still in the very early stages of actually adopting it as a model. The majority of class time is still spent in lecture, according to Teresa and other students. When discussion or activities do take place, students are often hesitant and unsure of how to participate. Teresa believes that that is something that will improve with time, as students practice engaging more and become increasingly comfortable with the process.

photo courtesy of Shaanxi Normal University

Support Needed to Promote Chinese Students’ Academic Success

Both China and the United States value education highly, even if they often express different goals and utilize different methods. It is important for educators and administrators to remember the pressure that Chinese students, as well as other international students, may feel as they take part in the American higher educational system. They are trying to adapt to a very different way of doing things, with little preparation for what that experience will be like. Resources and support need to be provided to help smooth the transition between instruction paradigm and learning paradigm. Through awareness and sensitivity to the adjustments Chinese students have to make, success becomes an achievable goal for all students.

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