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Faculty Seminar on August 26th


Aug. 2021

GEC Faculty Meeting Recap

The Characteristics of Chinese Students in Explorative Learning

On August 26th, 2021, GEC Academy hosted a virtual faculty seminar on “What is Special about Chinese Students in Explorative Learning?” Faculty from GEC Academy, professors and experts from Oxford AQA, and Universities in the UK and the US joined this hour-long seminar. The seminar provided a platform for scholars from these institutions to exchange ideas that might induce new program designs and teaching improvement for GEC Academy. Professors from Path academics shared their understanding of Chinese students and learning habits while teaching Project Based Learning (PBL) programs. Experts from Oxford AQA shared their philosophy and pedagogy behind Independent Project Qualifications (IPQ) course design.

This summary highlights the main points made by participants during the seminar.

The mindset of Chinese students
Francis Steen, professor at UCLA

Teaching Chinese students is delightful. They are attentive, quiet, and respectful. In contrast to American students, Chinese students are quiet until called upon, and they value the teacher’s advice more and regard the teacher as a significant cultural person. Such contrast is the result of different traditional influences and expectations.

Chinese students’ passive role in the study echoes Claude Shannon’s information theory, where the communication model is to transfer a message from point A to point B unchanged. It is a challenge while teaching. The students are like empty vessels, and teachers pour content into them, and the aim of teaching becomes a process of reproduction.

While Chinese students may be able to replicate what the teacher has taught, it implies a more conservative and stable concept of knowledge. For instance, Chinese students often want the professor to give them a quick overview of a selected field and significant topics. Chinese students expect the field to be stable, and the experts agree about important topics and major findings.

However, it simply is not the case. The field of knowledge is constantly in flux. It is perfectly normal for researchers, professors to disagree within their field of expertise. Chinese students tend not to have this intuition but see the field as finite, bounded, and known. This restricted view is also common among Chinese scholars. During a past conference presentation, a western professor presented a new, speculative theory, which was interesting and quite possibly wrong, while an eminent Chinese scholar’s presentation was like reading from a textbook. It is not to suggest this phenomenon is across the board but implies the role of Chinese teachers in conveying known and established content of the field.

Professor Francis Steen shared his slides with the audience, presenting his thoughts on the meeting topic.

The traditional model has been of memorization and reproduction, and has been successful at least till high school. While the Chinese pedagogical model is being challenged and changed, as we can observe on the reformation of “Gaokao” – the college entrance exam system in China, Chinese students still supported this model as fair and equal.

In contrast, at the research level, knowledge is unstable and always open to question. Refer to Popper’s falsification theory that whatever knowledge is standing is that which has not yet been falsified. This is a more risky approach to knowledge in a sense. Researchers are proposing new ideas that may well be wrong, and it is normal, admirable, innovative, and very much encouraged. This view can be surprising and confusing to Chinese students, and put them at a disadvantage in a western context. Taking the emergence of quantum physics in the early 20th century, for instance, the empirical results were astonishing because it broke away from classical physics and accepted norms of knowledge quite radically. Such a major breakthrough is rewarding and worthy of praise and recognition.

To expose Chinese students from inquiry-based projects to project-based research, we ask them to reorient the way they think about themselves, about knowledge, and the perception of teachers.

Regarding how to view themselves, we ask Chinese students to consider themselves competent in collecting and evaluating data, reasoning from evidence, and dealing with uncertainty. We ask them to follow hunches, trust their perceptions, take their reasoning carefully and seriously, and be willing to make mistakes to revise their thinking to deal with uncertainty. Similarly, it implies a different view of knowledge. A person sees knowledge as open-ended, incomplete, subject to revision, where one can contribute, and where authorities and existing knowledge can fruitfully be questioned. As for viewing the role of teachers, teachers are no longer simply the authority of established knowledge but someone who can provide valuable skills in terms of guiding a student within these larger possibilities and spaces of exploration.

The different views mentioned above are not uniquely Western ideas but general human psychology. The Chinese tradition is also filled with examples of innovation and the ability to draw complex inferences of not merely reproducing but producing knowledge by reading between the lines. This tradition is deeply embedded within Chinese culture. Confucius’ teaching is a good example of such teaching. He emphasized the importance of flexibility, context, innovation, and novelty.

Professor Francis Steen talked about Confucius's educational thoughts. 

IPQ and explorative learning for high school students
Emily Cheffins, IPQ Moderator at Oxford AQA

Independent project qualification (IPQ) is run by Oxford AQA. It aims to prepare students for moving forward with their university educations. This talk included a bit of background and discussed some of the issues and difficulties students face when going into higher education.

Many hardworking and determined students want to receive a top grade or high qualifications, and move on to top universities worldwide. It is all of that aspiration that drives them to get that extra edge in competitions. Teachers and institutions can help students develop skills, and project-based qualifications can be helpful in this process.

The initial development of project-based learning dates back to 2006, where AQA reviewed UK education, especially for students between 16 and 18, and recommended that students do some form of extended project work. As a result, extended project qualification (EPQ) was developed and launched in the UK in 2008. It grew from 4000 entries in 2008 to over 40,000 in 2016. Based on EPQ, IPQ was developed in 2016 to support international students. Both IPQ and EPQ have A-level standards and worth half of a regular A-level course.

IPQ is a student-lead qualification. Students are supported by taught skills necessary for research-based learning and are required to take 90-hour independent works. Students can choose a subject of their interest, which may not necessarily be the subject they want to study in the future. No matter the subject, IPQ will allow students to fulfill and explore a topic they are interested in, and acquire needed academic skills.

Ms. Emily Cheffins introduced IPQ to the audience.

For most students, going through IPQ is a new and challenging process. Students will come up with their ideas and discuss them with their supervisors, who will give some general advice and encourage students to think over, do more research and come up with a feasible proposal. Developing an idea takes time and can be the most challenging process, and it is okay for them to look at options before submitting the proposal.

Once the proposal is determined, the project moves on to the implementation phase. Students are required to maintain a production log alongside their research. The production log shows the journey the student has been on in developing the skills. Sometimes students do not see the importance of the production log, which shows us all the excellent information, skills, and ideas they have developed.

IPQ is also about the students developing confidence to work for themselves and establish that sense of ownership. However, we cannot throw students into the deep and expect them to know what to do. They will need taught skills programs alongside that they can test out some of these ideas. Skills such as project management, research, report writing, and presentation are taught to them. These taught skills give students access to find information needed and to develop their projects. Eventually, students submit a 5000-word paper, a production log, and an oral presentation. The presentation can be done in the students’ own language. It can give students some extra confidence, particularly with slightly younger students. Many students reported that they benefited from completing this project and became more confident when going to universities. The assessment is also different from other courses. It is marked rather than graded. This simplifies the assessment process and helps support teachers in delivering this particular qualification.

Ms. Emily Cheffins shared how IPQ works and how it can benefit high school students from taking it. 

Teachers and students develop a very different relationship, compared to traditional classroom teaching. Teachers help students grow academically and personally, and it is a beautiful process to watch students go on this journey through a project qualification.

Universities also like students who have taken the IPQ, and these students hold more advantages. The Center for Education Research and Practice at Oxford AQA found that IPQ/EPQ enhanced the opportunity for students to achieve higher grades at A-level. A-stars are improved by 29% among those taking the project-based qualification. According to a study at Southampton University, students with high A-level grades but without taking IPQ/EPQ do not perform as well as undergraduates. While students having done IPQ or EPQ are better prepared for universities and tend to perform well from the first year to the second year. They also generally receive more first-class or second-class honors degrees.

Discussion Session:
  • Q1: What are the differences between Western students and Chinese students when teachers are delivering knowledge to them. What ARE the observation and understanding?

American students often do not see themselves as creators of knowledge but as discovering new phenomena and adding to the knowledge they are not trained to. They are more open to questioning their teachers and more comfortable with the idea that the fields of knowledge are fluid and experts may disagree. This is very common among upper-division students.

However, it is not to say that Chinese students lack originality or creativity. Chinese students do ask questions to open up new inquiries. It is the way they think differs from that of western students. Chinese students have a more systematic perspective and an established discipline to approach further studies. Their exploration of knowledge is more consensus-based and more textbook-like, in a more closed-off way. Chinese students favor a set parameter or a set curriculum regarding their expectation of knowledge and studies.

  • Q2: As for high school students, what are their views of research-based studies, and what are the approaches to teaching.

IPQ is more geared towards international students and an extension of the original U.K.-based EPQ. The advantage of IPQ is the designing of taught skills. The course has more support and is tailored specifically for some of the more challenging aspects. Project-based learning is generally a challenge for 16 to 18-year-old students, because they are not used to or exposed to this way of thinking. The idea behind taught skills is that it allows students and teachers to play with ideas before heading anywhere. As the course progresses, students start to develop some skills to experiment with research and help them be a bit more creative. IPQ is specifically looking at delivering and preparing students for undergraduate research programs and setting up an almost unconscious mindset towards any project for students. This is the process that IPQ would like to deliver, so that young students can gain an advantage when they get to universities.

  • Q3: How can we better prepare young students to foster a research mindset?

The skills involved are not simply content skills but have been called for for a long time since the 1960s by Jerome Bruner, the act of discovery. The idea is to foster self-propelled learners and autonomous learners. The characteristics are hard to pinpoint but involve uncertainty, difficulty, and struggles. The students are moving into brand new territory and will need quite subtle high-level human skills. The knowledge package is telling students what they need to do, but it is not a recipe.

It is similar for students taking IPQ. The qualification creates an environment for young students to start engaging in research and thinking about why. Students can gain some experience, and of course, they will stumble when they enter universities, but it will not be unfamiliar to them, and they can succeed the next time.

Edison Yan, CEO of GEC Academy, asked several questions during the meeting. 


Participants agreed that the exchange of views and perspectives had been valuable for all. They agreed on the importance of such seminars and conducting regular sessions in the future. Participants all look forward to future meetings.


Special thanks to Professor Francis Steen and Ms. Emily Cheffins for their excellent speeches. Many thanks to Professor Patrick Baert and Ms. Jeniffer Obaditch for their contributions during the discussion sessions. Other participants included dozens of professors and teachers from Universities and Colleges in the UK, the US, and China. Thank you for participating in our faculty seminar and thank you for your support.

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