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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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On board the Very Fast Train to China

Libby Tuckerman
Program Director Languages, Education Services Australia

The article describes a new site that provides support to Chinese language programs and includes digital resources customised for Australian schools. It also flags upcoming resources that will support Indonesian and Japanese language studies.


China is now a professional destination of choice for many Australian principals. A delegation from the Australian Secondary Principals' Association attended the 2013 Zhongshan International Forum for Distinguished Secondary School Principals; study tours for school leaders and principals have become a matter of course; many secondary schools teaching Chinese in Australia incorporate at least one trip to China in their programs; and the Victorian education department is funding an immersion experience for up to 1500 Victorian secondary school students in Jiangsu to support Chinese language proficiency and to strengthen personal connections between the people of China and the people of Australia.

For many school leaders, the rationale for this interchange is clear:

I really believe that Chinese is the language of the future. I think [students who have some familiarity with Chinese] will get the job before someone who doesn't. So I really believe that I'm fitting these children out for the future, for their employment.
(Principal quoted in Profiles of Chinese Language Programs in Victorian Schools, 2012)

So what happens on return to school? It is possible that Memorandums of Understanding may have changed hands, sister school partnerships have taken their first tentative steps, school leaders have looked at the nature of their languages programs with increased interest. For some, that may mean a discussion about implementing a new Chinese language program in their school. For others, it may mean a re-evaluation of what is on offer within the existing program, or a new appreciation of its importance for students.

There are many great languages programs operating in Australian schools. However, the report on the last comprehensive study of Chinese language programs in Australia stated that '… at Year 12 nationally, a scant 3% of students take Chinese, 94% of whom are first-language speakers of Chinese.' The same report recommended that in order to increase retention of second-language learners, it would be necessary to:

… increase time spent on Chinese in all programs through increased allocation of hours, use of digital resources, and opportunities to hear and use the language in the real-life environments in Australia and China.

School leaders will make individual decisions about allocation of hours; time-tabling and resourcing are complex matters. However it is now possible to access a range of quality resources to support the teaching of Chinese language in Australian schools.


The Language Learning Space

The Language Learning Space (LLS) is one such resource. It supports educators by offering teaching materials and examples of best practice pedagogy, shown in short videos. Just as importantly, it offers students opportunities to practise their skills at home, to access a free tutoring service based in Beijing, and to explore resources such as the Rosetta Stone materials, which are designed to enhance and reinforce vocabulary leant in class.

The student section of the site is designed to complement and expand existing teaching techniques, which are often very textbook-reliant. Taking advantage of digital learning objects, the site includes 30 learning pathways designed to immerse students in a language and intercultural journey that they can complete in class or at home. Each journey culminates in a graphic novel challenge that invites students to use their new-found language skills to solve an issue set in 'virtual China'. Teachers are encouraged to upload their own materials, customise existing learning pathways to specific groups of learners and to use resources such as The Dragon Collective (transmedia narrative units) with the aim of making language learning more engaging.

The LLS is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education. It was developed by Education Services Australia. Launched in July 2013, the LLS won an Outstanding Achievement Award later in the year at the highly regarded Interactive Media Awards in the USA.


Professional learning

The emphasis on professional learning and pedagogy on the LLS site is important for equipping teachers to meet the expectations of the emerging Australian curriculum for Chinese language. The curriculum has increased the emphasis on intercultural language learning, stressed the differing approaches to teaching oracy and literacy in Chinese language, and provided three pathways for learners. This is brought out in a 2013 article in Australia China Connections, by Dr Jane Orton, Director of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre at The University of Melbourne:

… trainee teachers of Chinese do not get the information and training in technique they need to help students manage the very specific challenges of Chinese; and as most of the teachers are first-language speakers themselves, they have no understanding of the nature of the learning problems their language presents to an outsider. Furthermore, most teachers of the language in Australia grew up in a very different education system, one where memorization of facts was valued, not the development of intellectual curiosity or the internalizing of material through engagement with it in a variety of activities.

Fifteen professional learning modules on the site include titles such as Intercultural Language Learning, Teaching a Diverse Range of Learners, Using iPads, and The Australian Curriculum. Another module, Sister Schools, provides advice on inter-school collaboration, with examples of school-based experiences around Australia and in China. With sections such as 'Practical Issues', 'Trouble Shooting' and 'Support Networks', this module provides very practical advice to school leaders wishing to begin or strengthen a sister-school partnership with a Chinese school.

The site offers professional support for Chinese language teachers who are often sole practitioners in their schools. The LLS links teachers nationally through We Link, and provides access to Hanyu Laoshi, a forum hosting regular professional development activities.

School leaders booking a flight to China during the next school holidays may want to take a look at CanUHanyu, a new free app designed to help learners improve their Chinese language skills. The app can also be found in Google Play and iTunes. They may also be interested in the advice for first-time visitors to China within the Sister Schools module.

Over the next few months new materials will be published on the LLS to support the teaching of Indonesian (to be published in September 2014) and Japanese (December 2014). These materials will include a free tutoring service by native speakers, resources to support schools without trained language teachers, and location-specific variations on the richly immersive graphic novel interface that bookends the learning challenges for each language.

In 2013, the Australian Government stated that 'It is expected that all schools will encourage their students to study an Asian language, and ensure all learn about Asia and interact with classrooms across Asia through the use of digital technologies'. The Language Learning Space is a step forward to helping educators implement this objective effectively in schools.

Key Learning Areas

Languages

Subject Headings

Language and languages
China
Australia
Social life and customs
School principals