A Study on Chinese Teachers’ Practical Knowledge and its Cultural Implications for the Traditions and Futures of World Education

Xiangming Chen
School of Education, Peking University, China


Why do novice teachers not know how to teach, even though they have learned a lot of theories on education and psychology? What kinds of “tricks” do expert teachers have that enable them to teach well, and what kind of knowledge that underlies these “tricks”? I will introduce an empirical study on some Chinese teachers’ practical knowledge and its socio-cultural implications for their professional development. Although this kind of knowledge is not taken seriously by the academic field nor researched in depth due to its opacity and implicitness, it is considered here vital for teachers’ professional development and learning.

The research questions in this study concern the definition, contents, representation, structure and generative mechanism of Chinese teachers’ practical knowledge, as well as the mediation tools that facilitate the production of this kind of knowledge. Drawing on classroom observation, interviewing, document analysis and participatory action research in six schools in Beijing, teachers’ classroom practice as well as metaphors and native concepts from their own discourse emerge.

Teachers’ practical knowledge is considered as teachers’ enacted belief in education, which has been obtained through their reflection on their own personal experience. It is a unity of learning, thinking and doing (学思行结合), a kind of embodied knowing, generated and developed through teachers’ reflection-in-action. From the socio-cultural perspective, this study finds that many expert teachers exhibit typical features from the Chinese cultural tradition in terms of ontology, epistemology and methodology of teaching. They hold a holistic world view (天人合一) by identifying themselves strongly with their subject matter and their student learning, shown in such statements as “I am the Chinese language”. While confronted with conflicting demands from different stakeholders, they resort to practical reasoning (实践理性) in making the most appropriate decision here and now (中庸). In their daily teaching, they embody a strong tendency to integrate their knowing and doing (知行合一) by way of modeling and teaching by action, which is considered more effective than oral teaching.

The significance of this kind of study is to empower schoolteachers by revealing their own unique practical knowledge as one of the knowledge foundations for their professional development, as well as proof for teaching as “profession” and teachers as “intellectuals”. It is hoped that the Chinese cultural tradition for learning and teaching, as reflected in these Chinese teachers’ practical knowledge, can contribute to the co-construction of a global future for the betterment of the mankind.