GSE Faculty Advance Excellence Internationally in China

Back in June, several members of the GSE community journeyed to Shanxi Normal University in China, both for an academic conference as well as for cultural immersion. Included on this trip were professor Alisa Belzer, associate professor Caroline Clauss-Ehlers, associate professor Ravit Golan Duncan, professor and department chair Benjamin Justice, associate professor Tanja Sargent, and RIISA director Josue Falaise. While in China, the group would not only each deliver presentations at the International Conference on Educational Ethics and Teaching Morality, but they also immersed themselves in the culture of the region through school visits, meals with various members of the university community, and visits to some historical sites around the region.

The International Conference on Educational Ethics and Teaching Morality was a one-day conference which aimed to collaborate internationally with those who are also engaged in education research and practice. The topics discussed by GSE faculty were varied, from multicultural teacher education and ethics to teacher professionalism to engagement with evidence-based reasoning to teach science teachers. There were also participants from other universities including some from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Finland. This is the third year that Rutgers GSE faculty have been invited to present at Shanxi Normal University. The relationship between Rutgers GSE and Shanxi Normal University was established by Tanja Sargent. From 2016-2018, Sargent was a Shanxi Province “Hundred Talents Program” Distinguished Professor (2016-2018) affiliated with the Shanxi Center for Partnerships Promoting Quality and Innovation in Basic Education Research. The center aims to promote innovation in K-16 educational practice in Shanxi province using grant money from the Shanxi provincial government and is housed at Shanxi Normal University. “One of my tasks while working with Shanxi Normal University has been to help to bring more international expertise and collaboration to the university,” Sargent states.

The reasons to build relationships with international universities are vast. Duncan says, “Many of the most difficult, urgent, and pervasive problems in education are not limited to New Jersey or the US. Understanding how other countries have tackled these issues can be helpful to gain a deeper understanding of the problem itself and how it may be addressed. Variations in the educational contexts of different countries provide natural experiments in which we can examine how features of educational contexts impact the manifestation of these problems and the affordances and constraints of these contexts for addressing these issues. Diversity in perspective is beneficial to any attempt to understand a problem, make decisions about, and resolve it. While there is great variety of perspectives in the US, the contexts in other countries provide even larger and more pronounced differences that can be very instructive.” Justice adds, “Our mission is to research and create new knowledge, our mission is to teach, and our mission is to serve the people of New Jersey, the people of the United States, and the people of the world. This kind of trip serves that purpose. International exchange is an important branch of education, especially at the GSE where we see dozens of international students in our programs in any given academic year.”

In addition to their talks, the GSE group also had the opportunity to visit some local schools in the region with the guidance of their hosts. “Our first stop was the city preschool–a public school that everyone wants to get their children into because it is the best in the city.  Children are admitted first come first serve The school is for 3-6-year-old children. Our first stop was the three-year-old classroom where the children were having free play time.  In a second classroom we visited, the children were having a lesson.  The teacher was animated, lovely, funny, engaging and the children were very attentive.  The classroom buildings are very simple, but the classrooms are pleasant and cheerful,” Belzer details.

“The second school we visited was an enormous campus that was a middle school only but has recently begun to add the primary grades.  This school is the oldest in Linfen, over 100 years old, and is the top middle school in the city, very elite.  Students have to earn their way in by test scores. We were accompanied by three English teachers plus our own translator, the principal, and a few other officials, and so we were able to get lots of explanation and the opportunity to ask questions individually as we toured the building,” Belzer continues. They were also able to witness various school activities, such as physical education, regular classroom subject instruction, and rehearsals for the upcoming International Children’s Day performances.

During their week, the group also visited some historical sites in China, such as Tiananmen Square, known for hosting student protests back in the 1990s, as well as the Great Wall of China.  They were also participants in various cultural and social activities including meals, a bit of shopping, and posing for photos with locals who showed great interest in the eclectic group.

A surprising revelation for the group were the various ways in which values around critical topics in education aligned between the two countries. Duncan explains, “The conference we attended was focused on teacher ethics, morality, and responsibility. Providing meaningful opportunities to learn, and engendering equitable learning environments, was one of the recurring themes in the various talks and conversations around them. However, the nature of social injustices and how they are viewed differs among countries. The Chinese population is more homogenous compared to the student population in the US, where the culture is more unified and ubiquitous. However, there are still differences in social class and to some extent in opportunities. Thus the inequities and their consequences exist, but their manifestations differ.”

The trip had an impact on each of the GSE participants and allowed each to learn something new. Falaise says, “In addition to going for the presentation, I’m looking to start an international relationship with countries like South Africa and China. I developed a plan and want to implement an international exchange program. I’m looking to bring executive leaders, like superintendents, principals, and executive directors so we can create this network of an international exchange of ideas. The purpose is all about inter-culture competency, so it really draws upon ideas of other professionals in another country to be able to bring their ideas back but as well as offer some of the things that have never been done in the US.”

Justice reflects, “Mark Twain once wrote that travel is fatal to prejudice and I think that he’s right. In so far as encountering new people and new societies and new ways of doing things and new ways of being and knowing, changes you and it makes you more open and it makes you wiser. I think the more that we can get our faculty and our students to have those kinds of experiences, the more successful we’ll be. What’s also true is that it is important for our faculty to be in places where as they as people are a minority. And some of our faculty are used to that, just by getting through their day, but a lot of people are not. So, by being in a Chinese city where you are the only foreigner as far as the eye can see and people are looking at you and taking pictures of you, that is a really healthy experience. It’s good for people who aren’t used to that.”

Another takeaway from the trip was the hospitality of their international hosts. “Our hosts were incredibly gracious and kind. We felt really welcomed and that was pretty special. The respect of the people and the way we were treated anywhere we went shows that they appreciate people for who they are rather than what they look like, which was refreshing,” says Falaise. Sargent adds, “it was a rare opportunity to travel internationally with your colleagues, it’s really also a bonding experience. I have been so fortunate because I have taken several faculty members and I feel so much closer to those faculty now. When Dean Blanchett came to the GSE, there has been so much emphasizes on the need to build community.  I feel like this was such a community-building experience for the participating faculty. We really got to know each other and enjoy each other’s company while also advancing our strategic goals to enhance the global vision of our faculty.”