Chunyan Zhang

How knowledge about China flows between teacher and students in a Mandarin language class in Australia

We exchange ideas in every day life within the ordinary things we do. As I see it, each exchange is a flow of knowledge. It happens all the time in classrooms, of course, which is where my research interests lie. I am particularly interested in how knowledge flows between teachers and students. My belief is the more we understand about it the better we will be able to communicate and avoid misunderstandings and conflict in our classrooms.

I have been researching the knowledge flows within my own classroom as a Mandarin language teacher in a suburban primary school in Melbourne. My research has led me to believe we particularly need to work on encouraging more knowledge flows between immigrant learners in Australian classrooms and their teachers.

Backdrop to my study

As a complex set of processes, globalisation is the way we now live. Resulting from global flows between East and West, many Australian classrooms have gradually become multilingual and globalised after successive waves of immigrant children enrolled and settled in local schools. In identifying the significance of Australia’s engagement with Asia, many Victorian schools have introduced one of the suggested Asian languages as their LOTE (Languages Other Than English) program. Mandarin Chinese is one of them. My research on knowledge flow in a language program is situated against this backdrop.

My teaching style is reflexive and political

In recognition of my students’ diverse social, cultural and economic backgrounds, my teaching has become political and reflexive when introducing different aspects of China and Chinese culture to students from Prep to Year 6. It is impossible for me to bring everything about China into my classroom. My teaching of ‘China and Chinese culture’ in Australia is always limited, partial and incomplete. Therefore, I have to be reflexive and political in making teaching choices. Based on these understandings, I encourage students to express their opinions openly and freely in my classroom. As a result, different ideas about China are shared, clarified and instilled.

From our discussions, the ‘China’ that my Australian students made in my classroom is no longer a stabled entity, a country geographically ‘out there’ and culturally separated from ‘here’ in Australia. This ‘China’ made in my classroom is a mixture of different opinions or experiences. I call this ‘China’ a hybrid assemblage.

My research

I use auto-ethnography as my research methodology, which means I use my personal experience, reflect on it and share my understandings through anecdotes. I use this method because it is based on my understanding about the world and reality. I think parts of our world are captured well with conventional research methods such as questionnaires, surveys, observations, to name but a few; while other parts of the world like hopes and visions, guilt and pride, confusion and resistance are hard to capture. They are messy and complex, fluid and slippery, unpredictable and irregular. They are hard to catch and difficult to measure through scientific ways.

However, narrative writings or allegorical stories work well with these parts of the research world. Like other conventional research methods, they have merits of analysis. They tell what reality is from the researcher’s perspective. When investigating knowledge flow in my classroom, I have been writing daily teaching reflections to record classroom discussions that are related to my research. As my research data, they are named and dated. In the following sections, the extracted reflections provide examples of how auto-ethnographic accounts are used in my research on knowledge flows.

I conceptualise knowledge flow into four types: successful knowledge flow, knowledge flow with confusion, knowledge flow with resistance, and imbalanced knowledge flow.

Successful Knowledge Flow

These are examples of what I feel is a successful knowledge flow. Where my students understand something new by connecting the idea to their own knowledge and experiences.

‘Do you know the sound of “tea” originally comes from China?’ I wrote on the whiteboard, Chá—Chai (Portuguese)

Tey— Tea (English )

‘In my language we also call tea “Chai”!’ a child said.

‘In Arabic language we also say “Chai”!’

‘My language is the same!’ more students commented.

Extracted from Chinese Chá to Knowledge Flow      Date: 11-07- 2017


‘How about 虹 (hóng)?’ I continued my questions. ‘What does the left part of this character mean?’

‘It means snake!’ answered students.

‘How about the right side?’ I asked.

‘It means rainbow!’

‘Chunyan, in aboriginal culture they have a story about a rainbow snake. I think their thinking is very much like Chinese people.’ Said Zoe.

Extracted from Chinese彩虹 (cǎi hóng) and the aboriginal rainbow snake       Date: 05-07-2018

Successful knowledge flows provide people with multiple perspectives to see different cultures, races, traditions and beliefs. People no longer see another culture with strangeness and alienations. They become more tolerant and inclusive.

Knowledge flow with confusion

Our classrooms are no longer enclosed space with four walls, isolated from the outside world. Our classrooms become spaces that are porous and fluid, every child can bring in different kinds of knowledge and information. The teaching content that some educators try to avoid slips easily into our classroom through different ways. For instance, in teaching topics of ‘Chinese Currency’ and ‘Countries and Cities’, political topics like Chairman Mao or communism can easily be introduced into our classroom. Therefore, apart from educators’ prompt clarification with their students, both educators and students are challenged to be critical as well as analytical.

Here are some questions I have been asked:-

Chunyan, is sushi Chinese food?’

‘My father travelled to Kong Hong and bought this gift from that country!’

‘Who is Chairman Mao? Was he the king of China?’

‘Chunyan, the biggest star in Chinese national flag stands for the Communist party. What is the Communist party?’

And then there are exchanges I have had with other teachers.

‘How do you introduce Mao Zedong and Chinese communism to your students?’ I asked curiously.

‘I don’t teach these political issues. I only focus on language.’ Teacher Lan responded.

‘Me too, I also don’t talk about any political issues in my class.’ Another teacher May said.

Extracted from To teach or not to teach these ‘political’ topics       Date: 26-07-2018

This is another one.

‘Chunyan, I had a good discussion with students about communism.’ Linda, the grade 5 teacher, said to me.

‘What’s that?’ I responded with curiosity. ‘Share with me!’

‘Aaron came to me today and said that he did some research on Chinese communism. He said he thinks Chinese communism is better than Vietnamese communism.’ Lyn said.

Extracted from Conversation with Lyn       Date: 11-05-2017

In these instances too, the confusion can be addressed using clarification as well as drawing on critical and analytical thinking skills.

Knowledge flow with resistance

When the confusion and misunderstanding are not clarified properly, resistance arises. These are two extreme examples of resistance that I have encountered in my classroom. They are subversive, forceful and invite conflict.

It seems that to assimilate a new concept or knowledge into an environment, confusion and resistance happen side by side. The resistance in the process of knowledge flow is more complex than it appears. It can also be frictional, purposive and passive.

I was in the middle of teaching the Chinese version of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to grade 3 students.

‘Chunyan, I don’t want to sing this song in Chinese, because it has “no Allah” in it.’ A boy stood up.

Extracted from There is ‘no Allah’ in this song!     Date: 12-03-2015

And another instance.

Jill stood up and said, ‘Chunyan, I don’t want to do this work!’

‘What do you mean, Jill?’ I asked in shock.

‘It is against my religion. Chinese zodiac is about Yin and Yang, Yin and Yang are Daoism. My mum and dad checked on the internet, I don’t want to know anything about Daoism.’ Jill said seriously.

‘No, Jill! I didn’t mention anything about religion. We just talked about the differences between traditional and simplified Chinese characters through the word “lóng”, the dragon. We didn’t talk about Chinese Zodiac. It is just a simple writing exercise.’ I said.

‘No, I don’t want to do it!’ said Jill.

Extracted from ‘I don’t want to do this work!’    Date: 06-06-2018

Imbalanced knowledge flow

I wrote this in my journal about my students’ project posters.

Reading their project posters, I was curious to know where they found these facts or data. I searched on the internet and found out the contents of students’ posters were mainly from Wikipedia, English websites about China, Google images or YouTube channels. I see the limited, stereotyped or biased knowledge of China was searched, filtered and reflected by students without proper clarification. Dwelling on their projects, I feel the imbalanced (asymmetrical) knowledge flows between metropole Australia and peripheral society China. This confirms some scholars’ observations that globalisation is predominantly characterised with asymmetrical knowledge flow due to historical power differences.

Extracted from Reflection on students’ projects        Date: 12-07-2018

Students’ comments or personal experiences are, in fact, indicating the limited knowledge and understanding they had about China and Chinese culture. Behind this response is the imbalanced knowledge flows from ‘peripheral’ to ‘metropole’ society. Here peripheral societies refer to developing or under-developing countries while metropole societies refers to dominant western countries or Euro-American societies.

As you can see my research is still progressing. I hope my work will help teachers understand and recognise that knowledge flows are complex, ambiguous, asymmetrical and imbalanced.

My conceptualisation of the different types of knowledge flows could be useful to educators to help them identify and acknowledge the fluidity and complexity of learning and teaching in diverse classroom settings in Australia today.



Chunyan Zhang is a PhD candidate from RMIT University Melbourne. Chunyan chaired a Teacher Education and Research Innovation session at the 2018 AARE conference where she presented her paper China, a hybrid assemblage: knowledge flows in a primary school language program in Australia.