Twenty-five Chinese teachers, deans and principals visited Swampscott Middle School Wednesday morning to learn about American education and make friends with their American counterparts.
They made friends by exchanging gifts and talking — over coffee and baked goods in the school library after their building tour.
One of the group was Yao Yuhe, a biology teacher from a small town outside Beijing.
Yao’s name means singing bird in her language.
Fittingly she enjoys music. She plays a Chinese stringed instrument called the pipa, and listens to classical music.
Yao was a bit homesick on her first visit to the United States — she missed her 9-year-old daughter — but enjoyed learning about American education.
One striking difference between her classes and those she saw Wednesday related to class size.
Her biology classes all have 45-50 students. Swampscott classes have about half that number.
It’s not just class size that differ between her school and the Swampscott school.
The Chinese contingent had just visited a middle school math class and were surprised by the teacher's approach and the students' initiative.
The visitors noticed how the American students were more self-directed than Chinese students, said Yan Wang, a student from China who is studying at Salem State University.
In addition, it looked like the American kids were more apt to learn through hands-on experiences.
In the math class, the teacher was giving the students a test with questions from which the students needed to discover the formula, she said.
In China, the teacher would give the students the formula first and have them work from it.
She said that her country's approach could limit imagination.
The Chinese educators were also surprised to learn that students as young as those in middle school were designing and building a small house.
Some of the teachers in her group felt that taking on a house project might be dangerous for the kids.
Swampscott Middle School Principal Ralph Watson said later that the visitors had commented most about the science classes, the technology education class and the use of technology at the middle school.
So what might American teachers learn from their counterparts in China?
"I think talking with teachers from China gives our teachers a sense of how different schools and working conditions for teachers are — teachers in China work long hours, nights and even Saturday," the principal said. "There is also a great deal of pressure on teachers for their students to pass exams — these exams determine what type of high school students will get into."
So what might American students learn from Chinese students?
We put this question to Yan Wang, given that she is a fulltime student in this country?
“Just to work more harder, to take their work more seriously,” she said.
Wang is majoring in how to teach English as a second language.
The Chinese contingent was on the third and final day of their visit.
They visited Salem High School, an urban school, on Tuesday; and came to Swampscott to observe a suburban school.
They also came to the middle school because of its ties to schools in China and South Africa, because of its academic reputation and because it welcomes international visits, said Salem State geography professor Steve Young.
He led the tour.
The geography professor said on Thursday that the Chinese teachers appreciated that the middle school teachers made themselves so accessible on the visit.
He said it was clear that the principal spent considerable time organizing the visit.