The Whole Forest Symphony

Symphony, as defined in Webster dictionary, is the consonance or harmony of color.

Its synonyms are balance, symmetry, harmony, unity, which are the design elements that we learned about in the first few weeks of our class.

So as a world language teacher, what does the ‘symphony’ thinking skill means to me?

Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (1999) identified “The Five Cs” as the pillars in the standards-based instruction in the world languages classroom. They are Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.

National Standards of Foreign Language in 21st Century

National Standards for Foreign Language Learning in 21st Century

“…is the ability to put together the pieces…”     ~Daniel Pink

Communication emphasizes what the learners can do with the language so that they can communicate by listening, speaking, reading and writing; and share ideas with each other.

Cultures provide the opportunity for learners to develops a better understanding and appreciation of the relationship between a language and the culture of the given language.

It is not until we understand the culture of the native speaker’s language, do we understand some of the underlined significance of culturally appropriate expressions or behaviors. As the language teacher, my job is not only to teach them the pronunciation, the vocabulary and the grammar only, but to also share with them the rich culture of the people for them to develop the ability to connect the origin and the outcome.

One of the most discussed differences between the eastern and western family structures is how the society views the family dynamics between adult children and the parents.  In the westerners’ eye, it is considered ‘odd’ when an adult child, especially a son, still lives with the parents, let alone a married couple still live with the in-laws. While the western culture encourages independence and individualism, the Chinese culture holds a deep regard to the Confucian philosophy of filial piety which is a virtue of respecting one’s parents and ancestors. Living with the parents or in-laws is precisely one of the ways to show respect and to look after them on a daily basis.

“…to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields…”        ~Daniel Pink

Connections is about connecting the study of the world language with content of other subjects such as math, music, science, etc.  There is endless opportunities for world language teachers to collaborate and team up with teachers in other discipline on joint projects which allow learners from both disciplines cross-learn some aspects of the subjects and maximize their

appreciation of the enriched curriculum. I often team up with visual arts and dance teachers to integrate performing arts and visual arts elements in my curriculum. There are also units that integrate science and social studies with the target language.


Joined lesson with Dance class.


Joined lesson with Visual Arts class.

Comparisons is about encouraging learners to compare and contrast the languages, the practices and the products between the target language and the native language.

Many Chinese speakers have a hard time using ‘he/him/his’ and ‘she/her/her’ correctly when they speak English.  It is because in Chinese, while ‘he’ and ‘she’ are represented by two different characters, they share the same pronunciation. It becomes a challenging effort to differentiate them in speaking English.

Many non-Chinese speakers find it bothersome when encounter such error from a Chinese speaker, and misunderstanding occurs. Once we develop the understanding of the cause, we will be more empathetic about the grammatical error, and will be more receptive to the actual content of what the speaker tries to convey.

“…to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair..”        ~Daniel Pink

Communities, as the last pillar in the Standards, is about extending the learning experience from the classroom to the community, as well as being a life long learner who can continue the learning on their own after they leave the language learning program.  As a teacher, it is my job to sustain that curiosity and desire to learn, and to help the learner to acquire the skills to learn on their own.  It is different from the way I was taught where the teacher’s job is to ‘spoon feed’.


Field trip to local Chinese grocer,
learning outside of classroom.


Reading the label in target language.

A well-equipped language lab used to be the ‘technology’ for a world language program in most schools not too long ago.  In 21st Century classroom, the technology has evolved to interacting globally via the internet with web 2.0 tools over the cloud.

Education, particularly in Asia, is a competitive field where students constantly compete with each other for good grades and to get in top-ranked universities. The concept of collaborating was virtually unheard of. However, one of the 21st Century skills is collaboration – a very foreign concept for many native Chinese teachers, and definitely a challenge to be taken into account when creating lesson plans.

“…to produce a unified and pleasing sound.”               ~Daniel Pink

Symphony thinking is about establishing relationships. It enhances language and presentation skills. To be an effective world language teacher, it is imperative that we embrace Pinks’ symphony aptitude to achieve that whole new mind, and find a whole new approach in curriculum design. Just as it is not about the bassoon player or the first violinist but with the entire orchestra (Pink, A Whole New Mind), it is not about any particular tree, but about fostering the ability to see the forest when it comes to teaching a foreign language.

5 thoughts on “The Whole Forest Symphony

  1. Joanne, you are so thoughtful! What better way to understand symphony than through your own content matter. Your individual experiences provide (as always) more insight into our differences in locale/cultures. You are so willing to embrace contrasting ways of thinking yet also offered some specific details that might aid others in communication with people who have Chinese as a first language. Your writing does not allude to any confusion about English, (please remind me) is Chinese your primary language? Also, do you think our U.S. teaching standards are reasonable for “second language learners” of Chinese in a traditional classroom setting?

  2. Preference,
    Chinese is my native language, English is my 2nd language.
    I hope I understand your question about “second language learners” of Chinese correctly…. do you mean “English as a second language” learners who are Chinese?
    I don’t know much about the teaching standards in other subjects. But in Foreign Languages, pretty much all the teaching communities worldwide are following the same Standards now.

    • Thanks for clarifying and selecting the best terminology. As usual, I feel a bit incoherent! I was referring to anyone whose native language is Chinese and learned English in the U.S., but wanted information based on your experience/background with Chinese as a native speaker. It may help to know where you learned English…(in China or United States).

      You mentioned some ways Chinese education differed so I wondered how that fit in with American teaching and learning expectations. In a sense, I want to know if you think that the way the U.S. approaches learning “other/second” languages is more, less, or equally practical than Chinese ones from your point of view.

  3. Preference, I think the ‘approaches’ are now converging in the Foreign Languages disciplines. The biggest difference in education is the students, and the society! It is how focused and committed the students are, and how the society, as a whole, supports good academic performance. Our western perception criticized that the students there live an imbalance life, and they, on the other hand, see that we throw away great opportunities, and not living up to our potentials. But occasionally, we would encounter some Outliers that emerge from the norm in both societies!

  4. I think Preference and I especially enjoy the insights you share about how Chinese and American cultures may be different, Joanne. I appreciate the distinction you make here about the perceived differences in academic rigor. And, I’m also fascinated by your description of how the competitive edge in Chinese schools may diminish collaboration. Do you think that’s changing, perhaps by virtue of the “global symphony”?

    Also, wanted to tell you that I attended a session on the new Standard Six for North Carolina Teacher Assessment on how the teacher impacts academic achievement and how impressed I am that World Language teachers and others in areas where performance assessment is so vital will be creating teaching portfolios to document and reflect upon student learning. I think photographs and other digital documentation as you’ve used in this post will be vitally important to include. I think, you are, as usual, ahead of the curve.

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