Teachers discuss differences between American, Chinese educational systems

By Lara Sokoloff

Two teachers who visited Beijing No. 12 during spring break discussed the differences between Harvard-Westlake and Beijing No. 12’s classroom environment and school culture during a faculty meeting Tuesday.

Chair of Faculty Academic Committee and math teacher Kent Nealis and science teacher Narae Park visited the school as part of a relationship that was first forged two summers ago by Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts and President Thomas C. Hudnut. Associate Head of School Audrius Barzdukas has piloted the exchange program.

Beijing No. 12 is in the process of developing an international program that will help prepare students applying to colleges in the United States, Nealis said. Beijing No. 12 teachers visited Harvard-Westlake in February to learn about the AP program. The school is now planning to offer AP courses in calculus and physics this September and hopes to add more AP courses in the coming years, Nealis said.

Nealis said that a one difference between the two schools is that Beijing No. 12 begins every day with an all-school assembly that includes group calisthenics like Kung Fu. The students also wear uniforms, unlike Harvard-Westlake students. Class sizes are much larger, around 48 students. Students also remain in one classroom throughout the day while teachers rotate between classes. Park said this schedule limits students’ ability to take extensive electives.

“A student’s desk is like their second home,” she said. “They live there.”

Nealis and Park visited math, art, science, English and physical education classes at Beijing No. 12. Nealis said the math class was much more lecture-based with less student-teacher interaction. Park said the Chemistry lab differs from Harvard-Westlake in that lecture and lab occur simultaneously.

Nealis taught a precalculus class and Park taught a chemistry class on atomic structure while there.

The duo also led a roundtable discussion titled “How to prepare Chinese students for higher education in America.” They said, however, that the Chinese students were more interested in the boy-girl dynamic of America. Boyfriends and girlfriends are prohibited at Beijing No. 12, and students were curious if they are allowed in America, Nealis said.

Nealis and Park attended meetings with administrators and teachers to exchange teaching philosophies and techniques. They also attended the school’s “Spring Festival,” a performing arts showcase.

Nealis concluded the presentation at the faculty meeting by encouraging other Harvard-Westlake teachers to visit Beijing No. 12.

“They are looking for American teachers to come visit and come teach there on sabbatical,” he said. “They recognize that they need that perspective.”

Joe Dangerfield, Head of the Physics department at Eton College in England, who swapped places with science teacher Karen Hutchison this year, also spoke about differences between Eton College and Harvard-Westlake during the faculty meeting. 

To read more about his observations, click here.