"Student-centered learning", "teachers as facilitators" and "interactive activities" are hackneyed phrases we see in every promotional materials for Chinese textbooks, schools or apps. But when we examine closely, we find most of the claims are not merited. Teachers spend most of the class time teaching and doing classroom management. Students are requested to be obedient and taking notes all the time.
Therefore teacher's training is necessary. Teachers need to learn how to make students the center of the classes and how to facilitate learning. In other words, teachers need to learn how to inspire students to find values in learning Chinese, and continue to learn even after their days at schools are over.
Chinese language and Chinese culture are always paired up in program learning objectives. And many teachers consider themselves competent in both terms due to a simple fact that they are native Chinese speakers. However, being native Chinese speakers might help linguistically (they can tell when something does not feel right), but it does not help teachers get the cultural sense crossed to non-Chinese students.
Very often Chinese culture is defined within a narrow binary system of China-West. Han Chinese cultural practices are often used in a way to displace other forms of cultural knowledge, and to imply a homogenous Chinese culture. Teachers should move away from the binary view and become the nexus of cultures, addressing multi-cultural backgrounds of the students and encouraging engagement.
Top-down teaching does not work well. Teachers speaking all the time (regardless explaining texts or disciplining students) does not work well. Asking students to sit quietly does not work well; in fact, asking students to sit through the whole class does not work well.
We promote a few principles that work well in Chinese language classrooms. Regardless of ages, students learn much better if they can move around a bit. The whole class participation works better than only a few students answering questions all the time. Each class should be divided into several sections with different activities, so students get stimulated. Peer support and correction are important. Teachers need to learn how to design class activities that align with these principles.
A question all Chinese language teachers must answer: How good is your students' Chinese? Maybe they can order food in a restaurant, bargain in a market, or do a self-introduction. Maybe they can read the signs, write a letter, or read all the characters in a news article. Unfortunately, most of these can be accomplished using a smart device. Why do students still need teachers?
Indeed, Chinese language class should go beyond language as a functioning tool. Apart from the usual necessities, students must be given opportunities for self-reflection, and be guided to foster habits of critical thinking. Moreover, students need to understand the texts distilled from history, which have left so many traces in current expressions. These texts are a must to study for effective communications, and also the site for "permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation".
Teachers want students to participate in the class, but assign very passive roles to students. Classes usually start with a page of text, followed by 20-40 new words with explanations, followed by 10 grammatical points, followed by questions/exercises of various kinds. Then a new cycle starts. The only thing that students are expected to do is to memorize everything. No wonder that students are not attracted.
To draw active participation from students, we offer a different, "incomplete" cycle, which only provides a general structure and needs students to search for, think about and make clear of the missing information. This is a way to get students involved in a deeper level.