28 Mar 2021

Interview with Charlie Reis, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, China

In this interview, we talk to Charlie Reis, Director of the Educational Development Unit at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XTJLU) in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China and founder of CAPED, the China-based Association for Partnership in Educational Development. He has been living and working in Chinese higher education or transnational education for ten years.

1. Can you set the scene for us in terms of your interest in student engagement – how did you end up your current role, institution and specialism?

Student engagement is always a priority for me. I began my career as an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, where I had to learn how to run a class with kids who were not always engaged or who had different issues more pressing than what the teacher wanted. I took this attitude, of paying attention to the learner and what was going on with them, to higher education. My students consistently remark on kindness, which is no big deal except to point out that the opposite sort of comment would be horrifying.

My scholarly activity in engagement began when I was experimenting with pedagogy, initiating cooperative learning and working towards student self-actualisation. I had done some empirical research on self-learning of university students, prompted by my students at the time, but really became much more of a reader about pedagogy and engagement when I was looking for a vocabulary to articulate what I was doing. Funnily enough, my students called me lazy, since I structured learning and teaching so that they had to do more and cooperate. They surprise me by repeating or paraphrasing the rationale I provided in different contexts. This led me to see how important communication about why we ask students to learn in different ways is. Otherwise, it is harder for them to metacognate, and they are just doing what they are told in a traditional educational power structure.

In the context of COVID, after I had become an Educational Developer, it became clear that the removal of people from one another was impacting engagement; also, this and isolation, really mirrors of one another, are strong themes even in the pre-pandemic literature on engagement. In order to support staff, I was looking at everything I could and holding online professional development around aspects of online learning and teaching, with a highlight on engagement, since there is a sense, a la Ausubel, that teaching doesn’t matter while learning does (meaning the objective isn’t teaching, it is facilitating learning). The question becomes, regardless of environment or medium, how do we get students to learn? The answer, in part, is engaging them, early and often, in multiple ways.

2. This is probably a question for a huge thesis, but having seen higher education from a western and Chinese perspective, what do you think are the big differences and similarities between the two education sectors?

The sectors are different, as are the general learning experiences of people who go through these systems. However, in order to be human, and actually engage with learners, we have to constantly remember not to essentialise groups. Students from what the literature calls Confucian Heritage Cultures, a phrase foreign to these students themselves, have generally experienced and been successful in more passive learning environments, and traditionally show teachers much respect. This can translate into different behaviours in class, such as not valuing their own questions as they do not perceive themselves as experts, not wanting to interrupt the teacher, not wanting to speak in front of the group and so on. At least this is what I read; my students in China have all been fairly active, but I am not lecturing to large engineering classes. I also tell them why I want them to be active in class. Western students generally respond more immediately to calls for opinions, etc. This is compounded by linguistic inequalities that can privilege students who are more verbal or who have more linguistic resources, like better language in the language of learning.

Educational behaviour is learned, as are expectations of roles. but sometimes difficult to unlearn. My students in China used to tell me how funny it was that I would sometimes eat bananas in class, since they assured me that a Chinese teacher would never do that. Thinking about differences between groups, we have to remember that these don’t come from nowhere. Just as it would not occur to some that eating a banana is funny, it might not occur to others that they are helping the teacher when they answer a question because the point is to check retention or understanding or something else, which gives the teacher information about how learning is going, rather than respecting the voice of authority through silence. You never know, however, if you don’t ask any questions at all. I hope my overall approach is human enough that students relate to me as a person and continue to feel comfortable enough to tell me I am a funny banana-eating teacher. The point here is that being human can overcome a lot of the discomfort in intercultural negotiation of norms in learning environments.

Preliminary findings from research I am doing now on the experiences of transnational students, suggests that the expectations and behaviours of students is determined more by discipline than nationality. Students studying English are more interactive than students studying more intensely analytic subjects. I am western and living and working in China, but the biggest differences I see between myself and at least the undergraduates at XJTLU is that (one) I am old and like old people things, so not K Pop, and (two) that we are cognitively different in that I will sit down and read a bunch of journal articles about student engagement, while they would find this painful. I say this to highlight the difference between people teaching at universities and the people studying in them. When a teacher tells me that her lecture is great, just like a TED Talk, I always wonder if students like TED Talks, or are they just school-lite for them. My own talks are fascinating, I’m sure…!

3. We’ve worked with many Scottish universities who provide transnational education (TNE) through international campuses or learning partners, similar to the situation you work in. What are the challenges and opportunities for student engagement that TNE brings, and what role can TNE play between western and Chinese educational models?

TNEs are like any university, but textured differently. Where being a TNE is different is quality assurance, where we often might serve two masters to accredit the same Master’s. Our quality assurance load is what really impacts working at a TNE. From the student perspective, the TNE experience is varied. For our students from China, we offer a path to higher education that does not involve leaving China, but is not so closely tied to the high school exit aptitude exam, known as the Gaokao. We also offer a much different learning experience, at least in some disciplines, than a traditional Chinese university might. For example, I think we have the only RIBA-accredited architecture programme in China. The research focus here is also generally on publishing in English-language publications that gives us a much higher research profile than most Chinese universities; with the dual-accreditation of our UG degrees and professional accreditations, and also impacts what happens in classrooms in terms of what is taught. There are also some impacts of learning and teaching.

Language always looms large in TNE contexts, since students are often expected to be academically proficient in a language different from the one they use for everything else. Staff can also struggle with this themselves as deliverers, as well as leaders of learning and teaching. The opportunities are obviously vast, for example, delivering internationally-recognised higher education to many more people, exposure to different cultures or styles of learning and teaching, and an expanded research-base.

The play between Chinese and western models, as a general picture, offers much for reflection. What do you do to motivate students who seem to behave passively? What do you do with staff who only see classroom behaviour as they expect it as evidence of active learning? Most groups of learners seem to prize the same characteristics in educators: warmth, clarity, and seriousness of purpose.

4. So what does “student engagement” mean in China more generally? What expectations do you find that staff and students have of collaborating with each other in shaping learning?

I actually don’t know what Chinese universities are doing in terms of student engagement or staff-student collaboration, but my guess is that the exceptions will prove the norm; in short, it is not an issue as such as the element of engagement is less vivid in the tableau of higher education. When I talk to educational developers from Chinese institutions, they say that they usually provide around 40 hours of training for new teachers, which is not so much. Certainly, the government in China is looking to innovate new models of learning and teaching with Chinese characteristics.

In terms of collaboration, I have been looking for models of learning and teaching that would be sensible for Chinese contexts. When I saw the Ako Aronui, the Maori version of the UKPSF, developed by Auckland University of Technology, I had an ‘ah hah’ moment, or more like an ‘of course, why haven’t I done that?’ moment, and so I researched models of learning and teaching from a Chinese context and developed a Confucian version of the UKPSF for use in my professional context. This wasn’t so much to decolonise the curriculum so much as to create and use materials relevant to my context, but it was certainly an attempt to model best practice as a developer in a transnational context. Eventually, I would like to have an AFHEA offering using the new framework available for educators across Asia. Although I am not a sinologist, the idea of looking for relevant concepts with deep roots led me on a path of researching classical Chinese knowledge, to look for relevance to contemporary models of learning and teaching in innovative universities, such as the Daoist notion of wu wei, or purposeful inaction. This was also powerful for me because it was non-Confucian, and so did not have the resonance of cultural hierarchies, regardless of the fact that wu wei does appear in Confucius.

5. You recently presented about wu wei as part of the Educational Developers Thinking Allowed website’s Speakeasy series, which sparqs previously contributed to. For our readers, the video and slides of your session are online. Tell us more about what it means for learning, teaching and engagement.

Wu wei is translated in different ways, including inaction, nonaction, spontaneity, etc. For me, the basic idea is that we need a concept for learning design that deals with teacher inaction, for the reason that we want students to be active because learning works better with active students than with passive ones. That active learning leads to better scores and deeper learning, has been shown in study after study.

Vygotsky has also provided a version of this with the zone of proximal development for engagement and motivation. For students to be active, the teacher, at least as traditional didactic leader, needs to be passive. The sparqs' work on student roles in re-shaping the learning experience is an analogue to wu wei. Students cannot learn best, at all times and in all contexts (to provide a weakening caveat), if the teaching is overbearing, only delivering the results of activity, not sharing in making those results.

This is moving from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side, and now, with the hopeful incorporation into pedagogy via Daoist thinking, the sage on the side. Our challenge now, is to convince staff of this; that they are experts in how to learn in their disciplines, and part of this learning has to be student-owned and enacted. We need a concept to go along with learning design to hold the place of where the instructor needs to stop, so that the students can go. For ourselves, for staff and for students to add this into our conservations and thinking about learning.

If a teacher takes up all the space in a (class)room, what is left for students and student learning, particularly for things that do not lend themselves to passive or even individual learning? So, this is a non-didactic approach to learning and teaching with a genesis in traditional Chinese thinking, but relevant to much thinking about student-centred active learning. Traditionally, thinking about not-doing and about emptiness are fundamental to a lot of Daoist thought, and so allowing nature to flow via non-interference, which means student-centred active learning with teacher passivity as a provider of answers/knowledge in higher education contexts, is what I am talking about. Wu wei does not mean no action; in any event, no one would pay transnational university fees for that. Wu wei means using knowledge in a different way to guide students to build or develop it.

A few years ago, I was teaching a unit on Daoism, exploring to what extent the Dao de Jing was inherently environmentalist, at a time when I was experimenting with student self-actualisation. My students started calling me the ‘wu wei teacher’ as a way of calling me lazy because they thought I just refused to do much, that they had to do most of the work. Mostly because I refused to lecture, and made them share content to cooperatively build a resource bank from which they could approach assessments after peer instruction/presentation of new materials. I was trying to push them into scholarly behaviours and thinking, so I guess a bunch of undergraduates beat me to the idea of wu wei teaching. At the time, I did not have the pedagogical vocabulary to tell them that me being wu wei allowed their ziran (nature or what something grows into, here scholars/researchers/self-actualised people) to flow, but hopefully, we will all be grateful to them for the concept.
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Thanks to Charlie for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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