China Ed. 101
WorldTeach volunteer Amanda deconstructs some common assumptions about the Chinese education system.
I mentioned at the end of my previous vlog that I’d had a bit of an eye-opening encounter with the Chinese educational system. I’ve been wanting to expound on just what I meant by that, but it’s been quite the task finding a spare minute to do so. Wonderfully, we were given a random three days off from teaching for the middle and high schools’ sports days.
So, like I said in the video, I feel like the perception we Americans have of education in China is pretty flawed. Now, I hate to generalize, so for all of you enlightened Americans out there who already know how it all goes down in Chinatown please feel free to find other reading material.
But, if you’re anything like me, you have this idea that Chinese students are an intelligent, elite super-force of academia that is soon to take over the world because, well, our pokey American educational system is just not up to par.
Let’s clear a few things up, shall we?
First, yes. Yes, Chinese students tend to excel in the maths and sciences. And, yes, Chinese students also tend to score high on standardized tests. But before you start converting your dollars to RMB, let’s look at why this is the case.
Chinese schools seem to revolve around two things: rote memorization and the idea that more is better (my Chinese co-worker told me that we have Mao to thank for that).
Education here is about the result, not the process. Students do not learn how to learn, they learn information. They are not taught critical thinking skills or the creative application of their knowledge or abstract thinking or anything in which the information they ingest can be used outside of the framework in which it is presented to them. They learn to take in information and regurgitate the same information in the same manner.
This is why math and science are such strong subjects for them. Math involves a lot of set formulas and systems that supply you with consistent results. Math requires us to memorize things because their facts and figures are unchanging. Twelve times two will always equal twenty four. And if I ask you to memorize the twelve times table and then give you an exam to check if you know it, you’ll probably ace it. (Or you’ll be like 8-year-old Amanda and write all the answers on a slip of paper because, come on, the twelve times table is hard.)
However, if I ask you to take two unrelated objects, say a paper clip and a water bottle, and combine them to create a new object, well, that requires a completely different skill set.
This same “just memorize it” thinking applies to standardized tests. Students here really only apply themselves when they know a test is coming. If they have the SAT coming up in, say, two months, they will spend that entire two months, twelve hours a day, studying for it. Test prep books, outside lessons, practice tests, whatever it takes to get a high score. Yet there is no concern for whether any test-taking skills are actually learned in the process. The score, the result, is the only thing of importance.
Take essay writing, for example. You don’t learn how to write an exam essay, you simply memorize several different essay answers and copy the same answers on the test, perhaps tweaking a few things here and there to try and make it fit whatever the question is asking of you.
One of my students summed up this whole learning fiasco quite well. I was chatting with her about her post-graduation plans and she told me that she really wanted to become an architect. She feared that she wouldn’t be able to, however, because she lacked creativity. She told me, “I can copy other’s work really well, I’m very good at it. But I can’t think of my own ideas. I have no creativity, and I think because of that I won’t be able to become an architect. Do you think maybe I could work as an assistant?”
That is the problem with Chinese education. These students may go on to be excellent engineers or scientists, but the percentage of them who will be making new discoveries or reinventing our world or starting movements is very small.
The other half of the problem is the whole “more is better” mantra of China. Students here work round the clock. Students are in their classrooms by 7.40 every morning and, depending on their grade level, they finish their evening classes and study halls at either 9.30 or 10.30 at night. They receive a two hour break in the middle of the day to eat lunch and take a quick nap and around two hours in the evening to eat dinner, take a quick shower, and perhaps get a little bit of “fun” time in. Many of these students also take additional lessons outside of school.
I privately tutor a student (not from Xiamen Yingcai) and in addition to his regular five day school week he spends Saturdays with me and a math tutor, leaving Sunday as his only “free” day, which he spends doing homework.
The result of this hectic schedule results in exhausted students who sleep in class. All the time. That’s actually one of the biggest issues I’ve faced here. These kids just can’t keep their eyes open, and understandably so. I mean they make me tired just looking at them!
So, between the surface-level learning and the chronic exhaustion, the average Chinese student leaves much to be desired.
Unfortunately, this approach to education “makes sense” in a country with a population as large as China’s. The government requires a system that keeps aspirations and creativity low in order to function.
Now, of course, this is my blog and these are my opinions. The whole purpose of this blog is to mark my reflections about the world as I travel through it and not dish out hard, cold facts. There are obviously Chinese students out there who don’t fit this mold and who, hopefully, will go on to have a positive impact on their country and the world. And I could just as easily write a whole other entry about the plight of the American educational system.
Until next time…zaijian!
– WorldTeach volunteer Amanda