By Rena Gao (UWCAC 2016-2018)
“What makes you happy?”
When I say “little kids”, I mean so in the most non-perverted way.
Because I am a five-year-old disguised as an almost adult, children have always been one of my major sources of happiness. Therefore, naturally, I put “Globe Trotters” down as my service first choice. GT is a service where we plan sessions and go to two local primary schools in Llantwit Major twice a week to spread UWC’s international culture.
Having received my primary education in China and secondary one in America, I always wondered what impact the differences between Western and East Asian primary schools could have created in children, as they are such distinctive cultures. It had to be more than the stereotypical observation that Chinese people are good at math. Luckily, my service provided me with the perfect opportunity to dig deeper.
For comparison purposes, I included observations from last summer when I participated in a volunteer teaching trip to a rural Chinese village in Yunnan province to obtain more insight into the traditional Chinese primary education.
My first service session started at St.Illyd School, Wales, on a warm Wednesday afternoon. The school reminded me not so much of my Chinese primary school, where white-washed walls and neatly lined-up tables and chairs dominated the building, but of the Lower School at my American school, with carpets, narrow but intimate corridors, bright colors, lots of posters on the wall and smiling teachers. On the way we passed by a large group of loud and passionate children who were drawing with oil paint.
Then we walked into a classroom with kids in different uniform colors, who were shouting out country names in Europe. Most of them were immediately drawn away from their teachers by our entrance, and some waved eagerly. Margot, our service leader, divided them into five groups, each representing a continent. A cute little blonde girl (whose name I later learnt was Olivia) exclaimed excitedly after being allocated to the America group (ah, kids). While creating their own identity shields, most of the kids were verbal with their ideas and questions. No one (as far as I know) worried about their drawing skills. A few of them even encouraged me on my questionable artistic abilities, saying, ”I think you did a good job!” The fruits of appreciative education could not be more obvious. Thinking back to my time with the kids in Yunnan province, I remember vividly how most of them hesitated when I asked them to experiment with color scratch papers, fearing of imperfect first tries. Many children also shied away from my compliments of their drawings. Constructive criticism clearly has its benefits, but I wonder if schools should utilize it to the extent that children have become afraid of making mistakes. Picasso’s famous quote seems especially fitting here: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” How do we remain artists if we are too scared to create?
By the time we finished our session and walked out of the classroom, the group of little painters were gone. Instead, the tables were full of different imitations of Starry Starry Night. Thinking back to my teaching career in Yunnan, kids from second to fifth grade had hardly any idea who Van Gogh was or what his incredible portrayal of the night sky looked like. The gap of knowledge was evident even at the age of 7. Of course, I am not saying that everybody should be proficient in the history of art. Nevertheless, these Welsh kids attended a school that valued appreciation for art and that provided its pupils with paints and art teachers, unlike the one in Yunnan province. Ten years from now, what different kinds of people will these kids grow up to be because of this little difference?
Please understand that these comparisons and questions are not meant to condemn any style of education, but rather to open up discussions that will probably benefit children in both cultures.