A US educator whose work is venerated in China

Science and math educators in China easily recognize the name Lan Benda. Her teaching methods have been integrated into the curriculum at Peking Normal University, the most prestigious teacher-training institute in China. More than 27,000 copies of the book that outlines the practice and theory of her educational approach, the ``Investigation-Colloquium Method,'' have gone to teachers, administrators, and university professors throughout China. But Lan Benda, known as Brenda Lansdown to all but her Chinese colleagues, is not a venerated Chinese educator; she is an American educator whose work is venerated in China. During an interview in her house in Cambridge, Mass., Ms. Lansdown discussed the events that led to her becoming the first Westerner to consult with the Chinese on elementary education since 1949.

Seated beside a mantelpiece filled with tiger dolls given to her by Chinese friends to commemmorate the recent new year, the octogenarian educator confided that the reception of her ideas in China over the past four years has gone far beyond that accorded them after 60 years of teaching and experimenting in this country and England.

The opportunity to introduce her methods to the Chinese came by coincidence in 1980 during a study-tour of China that Lansdown organized for a group of retired Americans. During her trip, she met a Chinese professor of education eager to learn about the innovations Lansdown described.

Lansdown had been interested in Chinese education for nearly half a century. As a young teacher in New York City, she had followed the progress of Mao Tse-tung's Long March.

``Mao's commitment to use the creativity of the peasants,'' she says, ``enabled millions of Chinese to overcome feudal ways of looking at the world.'' The educational ideas of Mao, along with those of many others, were actively debated among progressive educators at the time. This helped Lansdown to experiment with new teaching methods.

She was disappointed to find, on visiting China years later, that the pedagogy applied in Chinese elementary schools bore no resemblance to the critical thinking advocated by Mao. ``Traditional elementary education in China relies heavily on rote memorization rather than fostering creativity and learning,'' she says.

Lansdown arranged, in turn, for the Chinese education professor to visit the US in the fall of 1981. Among the classes the educator observed were those taught by Lansdown's former students with whom she had worked at Brooklyn College in the '50s and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the '60s.

The Chinese educator was so impressed that she asked her university to sponsor a seminar with Brenda Lansdown. In 1984, Lansdown sat in a circle of 20 education officials and elementary school teachers in a large seminar room at Peking Normal University. The circle was ringed with expectant onlookers.

The audience, whose numbers swelled from a handful to over 300 at the end of the seminar, were attentive but discontented. They wanted a lecture and notes to fill their empty notebooks. Lansdown spoke only occasionally and asked few questions, and the ``discoveries'' made by the group of educators in the center of the growing crowd seemed too obvious or simple to record.

Lansdown insisted on a series of demonstration classes in a commune school. The officials were reluctant. ``They said it wasn't possible -- that children in the commune schools weren't so bright,'' she recalls, ``so I told them maybe that's why I want to teach there.''

By the end of the week, she found herself in a classroom of 8-year-olds at the Ma Lian Wan school of the China-Japan Friendship Commune. With a skeptical jury of education officials facing her and 60 years of teaching experience behind her, she knew the pupils would be the best judges of her methods. She shuffled the children into groups to subvert the rigid order of the classroom and then handed out her odd array of teaching aids: a few magnets, pieces of cardboard, and strips of metal. For a few minutes, the pupils sat unmoving and somewhat confused.

But soon they were busy picking up nails, and testing the strengths of different magnets with layers of cardboard. In short, they were exploring the principles of magnetism. After the ``investigation'' period, they discussed their results and made plans for further experiments. Lansdown occasionally pointed out contradictions, but, for the most part, she let the pupils teach one another. Although the noise level had substantially risen compared with the monotonous drone of memorization drills, the educators all saw that fascination, not confusion, reigned in the classroom.

``The 8-year-olds learned more about magnets in 40 minutes than was written in the textbooks for the 10-year-olds,'' she says.

Although her methods are known in the US, they have not been widely applied. George Tokeida, co-chairman of the science department at Brearley School in New York City and a former pupil of Lansdown at Harvard, has used the Investigation-Colloquium Method with a wide variety of students over the past 19 years. He finds it ``frees students to learn in the natural way they are meant to learn.''

The teachers whom he has trained in this approach respond enthusiastically. ``Good teachers say, `Ah-hah! This makes sense. I've been doing this all my life but never had a structure,' '' he says, ``while young or inexperienced teachers find that the structure enables them to discover their own way to effective teaching.''

The Investigation-Colloquium Method combines recent findings about cognitive development from psychologists Jean Piaget and, in particular, Lev Semenovich Vygotsky. This approach goes beyond pedagogy based solely on experience because it provides a structure for pupils to make their own discoveries and discuss their results. ``This discussion of experience clarifies thinking and builds concepts,'' Lansdown explains.

The success of her first official trip to China assured her a return ticket the same year. With funding from UNICEF and a Chinese educational research institute, Lansdown and three colleagues ran a series of workshops with educators from all over China. They spent four weeks of intensive work, not only giving seminars, leading discussion groups, and holding practice classes, but also helping establish resource centers where simple equipment for use in science and math classrooms could be built from easily available materials.

Of education in the United States, she says: ``People are building oases of education here,'' but educational reform will have to be gradual, and will require the cooperation of not only teachers and administrators, but parents as well. She has learned through her 60 years of teaching that, ``You can't buck the whole system; but you can keep alive what will be used if society changes.''

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