Moira LaidlawÕs Commentary on Liu XiaÕs Class, Tuesday 8th June 2005.


AR Question: How can I help my students become autonomous learners in order to improve the learning?


I arrived a little early and gave the students some guazi (sunflower seeds)! I know that when I do this in my methodology class, the students feel very comfortable. I didnÕt do it every time because we canÕt always do this. However, I also find this class very friendly and helpful to me when I come here, so I wanted to show them my appreciation. ItÕs also in line with what we have talked about: showing respect and encouragement to students is a good way to help them learn and feel confident about their studies.


You started the lesson before the bell, and actually, it was more like a free-talk. You discussed the University entrance examinations with them, because theyÕre now happening all over China in Middle Schools. You asked them what they knew about the organisation and asked them about their feelings at this time. All the students were involved in the discussion, and it felt so natural. English being spoken in an authentic atmosphere. One lad told the story of his hard work and how he relaxed afterwards. Another student (girl) talked about her own feelings and how she then prepared for the oral examinations, which the better students can take. ItÕs really a lovely atmosphere youÕve created here. You then asked students directly, in order to get them involved. Great!


Then you asked a student about their recent examinations and several views were exchanged. Completely in English of course. I wouldnÕt expect anything else. Fantastic! You emphasised how important the process of study was in pursuing excellence in study. After that you talked about their presentation work. The students are expected to explain what they have learnt (and you say, what they havenÕt learnt) and then an evaluation. Sounds really good. You conclude by saying that this process will lead to a plan about what you can do next in order to promote better learning. Wow!


Each student has five minutes to talk to his/her partner about their learning; what they donÕt know yet; and also the quality of it. In addition, the English-language knowledge should be discussed- pronunciation, intonation, grammar, vocabulary etc..


So, what you appear to have set up here, is an extremely student-centred activity, in which you help them to structure it, but the responses are their own, made in real situations, necessitating flexibility, fluency and critical thinking. This is the essence of the New Curriculum. On the blackboard youÕve written 1) welcome; 2) presentations; 3) evaluation; 4) re-thinking; 5) next plan. I think this gives a clear picture to the students of your methodological logic. It is also the logic of Action Research, which believes that the logic of teaching should promote the logic of learning. I think you are showing how teaching and learning are intimately related here.


So now, IÕm listening to the pair next to me. She said she didnÕt prepare very well for her pre-class texts, and she feels that this was a stumbling block to her learning. She recognises her responsibility for it and made a pledge to improve it next time. She asked her deskmate for help in solving her learning strategies and he gave her some suggestions. She was having problems with the structure Ôin front ofÕ but her deskmate was more proficient in this grammatical structure and helped her. ItÕs living evidence that students really can help each other. Both of them were assiduously paying attention to the needs of the other in a most co-operative and creative way. Their English was faltering but very comprehensible. Then the young lad asked his deskmate for her help, as they had solved her problem. She bent over towards his book and looked at what he had underlined. She took him through the meaning and the grammatical structure point by point and it was clear he understood when he then used a new sentence containing the new structure in it. This is fantastic evidence of your student-centred methodology. These students not only have learnt some good English, but have also internalised the strategies for improving their own learning. ItÕs most impressive.


As I walked around the classroom I was struck again by the different methods the various students were using in order to help themselves and each other. Some were reading aloud and copying each other. Others were talking about strategies rather than content. Some were listening and correcting others. Some were sharing their written notes and comparing their progress. It was wonderful because, as it says in the NC, students need to have the chance to evolve their own strategies for learning and not be constrained by the teacherÕs methods, which might not be suitable for them as individual learners. In addition, English was being used almost exclusively. A couple of times I heard a little Chinese, and the student, on seeing me, didnÕt look guilty as if this was a forbidden activity, but simply continued explaining and then said something in English. Again, most impressive.


A student comes to the front to talk about her learning from Unit Ten (a unit you apparently taught traditionally last time). She talks about how certain phrases have helped her express herself better generally. She translates the sentences and gives examples of their usage. Most impressive again. She speaks confidently, and with a big grin on her face. What a delightful student. She then said she couldnÕt find the translation of a particular phrase. Could her classmates help her: ÔYou are as smart as everyone elseÕ. One student provided the word ÔcleverÕ instead of ÔsmartÕ. ThatÕll do! A student from the front gets up and interrupts to ask a question. The teacher-student says she also had a problem with that phrase, but it actually meansÉ Wow! All in English. This really is quite exceptional learning going on here in any culture, Liu Xia. Here are students listening carefully, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (it means enthusiastic) and participating when they need to. They arenÕt being told to by anyone, and yet here they are, conducting their own learning. ItÕs quite amazing to see it happening. She then spells ÔirresistibleÕ wrongly on the blackboard. I can see you noticing it, but you donÕt say anything. Good. Now isnÕt the time. When I saw Liu Binyou recently, he wanted to interrupt his student-teachers all the time, because, I suspect, he worried that if he didnÕt the students wouldnÕt learn. The result was that the students didnÕt trust the teacher on the platform and itÕs important to allow the student-teachers to blossom in their new role. In fact the time for correction is when the students can really pay attention to the correction and not feel diminished by the interruption. For a teacher, this means showing respect to students. Dean Tian in our recent video about his dreams for education here, mentioned that students are respected more these days. I think here is the evidence for that statement. A wise teacher (like you) chooses the right (educational) time to correct mistakes and doesnÕt assume straightaway is the best time.


And still the student-teacher talks and explores her learning. Standing confidently on the platform, writing on the blackboard, fielding questions, answering, asking, explaining and describing. Most impressive (again! IÕm running out of superlatives here)! What I also love about this is how active the other students are. If the student-teacher canÕt explain something, they treat it as an opportunity to speak, to hurry to find the answer. They all want to join in. YouÕve created the kind of environment that the New Curriculum is looking for. ItÕs quite something, you know.


After the break I talked to you about sending a transcript of this lesson with its links to the specific demands of the NC to Mr. Ma in the Foreign Affairs Bureau in Yinchuan, and Zhang Lianzhong and Professor Wang Qiang in Beijing. I think this will serve two purposes. First, it will show that the NC can be taught successfully using student-centred methods. In addition, it will show others what we are doing successfully here.


Then you asked students to comment on the student-teacherÕs performance. A student from the front talked about the work she had done and said how it had helped him. He also mentioned that her performance was good and she shouldnÕt criticise herself so much. Another student (Yu Jie?) stands up and says what she feels about it. She talks about the detail, the depth, and the methods her classmate used. ItÕs a lovely way to consolidate the knowledge being processed here.


You then sum up because of the limitation of time. You mention about ÔirresistibleÕ, but about the pronunciation, which I hadnÕt noticed. You didnÕt notice the misspelling. Never mind. Next time, perhaps! You asked me to describe the phrase, Ôto resign oneself to somethingÕ, which had been wrongly attributed in the index. The students listened attentively and then the lesson continued.


You ask students who are silent to present their understanding. The first student is not willing, so you allow him not to stand up. A clever student stands up, goes to the platform and asks if there are any questions. As there arenÕt any significant ones, she then directs the class to turn to the language-points. She gives the class some new examples and goes through the language points detail by detail. She stands there like a real teacher, smiling and encouraging ÔherÕ students, whilst at the same time, giving them insights they ask her for. ItÕs like seeing your values being gradually embodied by their values and actions. ItÕs like life itself unfolding in front of my eyes. In the NC a lot of emphasis is placed on the studentsÕ affective domain. Here I see studentsÕ emotional needs in the process of learning being satisfied by the kindness of the instruction, by the variety of methods, by the relevance of the examples to their own lives. I am seeing English language-learning unfolding as I believe it should unfold: gradually, confidently, logically and with enjoyment. I am sure that the people who devised this great new curriculum had classrooms like yours in mind when they thought of how to create a revolution in the classroom. You really have become a facilitator of learning. You are confident enough in yourself to allow your students to develop their own learning pathways, knowing that the methods they use (with your educational guidance) create and assimilate the knowledge they need – and in this class, also want!


Again, after some lengthy explanations, the student-teacher asked for more questions before moving on. A student stood up and intoned number four. And another stands up, and another. This is a classroom in which a student-teacherÕs direction of the class is augmenting the learning process, as the NC suggests it can. Students become suddenly animated as they disagree with one inference from a particular phrase. A controversy is born. You stay silent at the back and allow them to battle it out. This again shows the students that they are capable. They can learn by themselves. Sometimes, I think the ability of a teacher to believe in his/her students is a deciding factor in the effectiveness of their learning and indeed of the teacherÕs own. She asks the questioner to sit down, but sheÕs not finished yet. The student asks a further question and others start to provide the answers for her. Again disagreement breaks out and a conversation built on a real situation is born. Masterly!


This week, by the way, I have spotted a real sense of progress and hope in the male student sitting right at the front. When I first came to this classroom, he seemed subdued and not really able to participate much. Now heÕs absolutely on task all the time. He is smiling with confidence, and often answers questions. His pair-work with his deskmate earlier was an exemplary piece of learning in which the student takes responsibility for his own learning and will not be swayed by other concerns, in which he truly helped his deskmate and listened carefully to her concerns. Sometimes when I see such moments in the classroom, I believe I am in the presence of something quite magical. I see the specialness of our shared humanity.


I spoke to Dean Tian earlier about my first impressions here of teaching and learning in Guyuan four years ago. He asked me to be honest. I told him that I had felt two opposing things. First the people here had a palpable desire to improve education. Students were earnest about their learning and teachers demonstrated a high degree of professional and personal concern for their students. However, on the other hand, I had noticed a tendency for students to listen passively to their teachers, and never to ask questions. As I sit here in this classroom today I am aware of the strides that teachers and students and managers and all our Action Researchers have taken here in our AR Centre in order to remedy this situation. Your classroom stands for me as a citadel of achievement for all aspiring educators everywhere. Not only in Guyuan, or in Ningxia, not only in China as a whole, but in the world outside too. I donÕt mean I want every classroom to be exactly like this, because every classroom needs to cater for the learning needs of its various students, all of whom are different. What I would like to see more of in every classroom is the trust, respect and encouragement of individuals and groups to achieve their real learning potential. What I would like to see is the desire to learn realised and consciously understood by everyone. What I would like to see is the freedom to learn in ways, which I am certain, the originators of the NC had in their minds when they first had the idea to change education in China. What a legacy we are seeing here in this classroom from their brilliant beginnings and from the AR work here at the Centre in Guyuan! This day needs to be celebrated, Liu Xia. It is a flowering of a beautiful tree.


And in the classroom, as I reflect on the significance of this lesson, students have disagreed with nuances in a particular phrase. When the student-teacher has exhausted her studentsÕ ideas, she turns to you for your ideas. You now encourage a student, Zhong Ying, who sits in the corner to talk a little, because sheÕs been silent the whole lesson. I think, yet again, you are bearing a professional responsibility for all the students, because you cannot expect a student-teacher to be able to do this as effectively as you. Her insights wonÕt be yours. I love the way you do this. You encourage rather than order. You smile and cajole, until the student feels better. And then, Zhang Ying does a good job. She translates effectively. I notice, however, that this particular student-teacher is really noticing what youÕre doing. I watched her as you asked Zhang Ying to speak. She now herself chooses a silent student and encourages her in a similar way. Her instructions for reading aloud are clear and the chosen student listens carefully. As I look around, I know the student I would pick. Mr. Ma sits silently. And then she chooses him! Can she read my mind? I sense (of course I cannot prove this) that the pathways of learning and teaching are beginning to merge, that the students may well not see the differences as much anymore. He is hesitant, as I might have expected, but he does it well. Mr Tao is then asked to speak. His classmates laugh at his Chinese pronunciation, but he certainly doesnÕt seem worried by it. He grins broadly and carries on regardless! Well done.


Then she asks me to say something. What a student-teacher! I talk about how they are learning through the New Curriculum. You then tell them about an article you found on the internet about autonomous learning in line with the New Curriculum. Fantastic. Another example of your faciliatation.


In this classroom I have seen a rare example of language-learning in authentic ways, promoted by your methods and held together by the strength of your belief in individuals and groups to find the best ways themselves to learn better. It was an honour to sit in your class and see a dream realised.


Thank you.


Moira Laidlaw, 8th June 2005.