With my interest and background in education, my teaching in China placed me in a unique position to do the firsthand observation of Chinese education at all levels, which was one of the primary purposes of my original sabbatical request and my subsequent trips there. My wife and I visited some elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as several community colleges. I also had the opportunity of teaching at all university grade levels. I came to find out that education has very different, much more deterministic consequences for Chinese education and students than it does for American students.
Look at it this way. With a population of over 1.3 billion people, China has one-fifth of the world’s population: one in every five people on Earth is Chinese. Further complicating the problems of that massive populace is the distribution of the citizens.
China has roughly the same land mass as the United States. However, a good portion of that area is uninhabitable or sparsely populated, for example, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayan plateau regions have proven to be mostly useless. The eastern half of the nation is where the majority of the people are clustered with a chunk of the population concentrated in and around the large cities. Also, seventy-five to eighty percent of the people are still agrarian. Such disparate distribution and density of the population certainly make feeding, housing, caring for, and educating the citizens an ongoing challenge, with education being a key focus.
The path of Chinese education
Every school day in China, over 300 million students study more than the entire population of America. Indeed, one of my Chinese colleagues once related to me an enlightening analogy: Education in China, he illustrated, can be compared to a wide, packed highway leading to a narrow bridge.
The farther along the road, one goes, the narrower it gets. Many students get forced out into endless side streets all along the way. And at the end of that crowded road lies a very narrow bridge called “post-secondary study.” If one does not cross that bridge, full participation and success in the Chinese economy are extremely limited. And because very few people can ever cross that bridge successfully, entry into the post-secondary study is extremely competitive.
All Chinese citizens are guaranteed a basic ninth-grade education and increased literacy in the nation is one of the primary goals of the government. However, given the enormous number of students to be educated, those aims are difficult to achieve. Average class sizes range anywhere from forty to eighty, depending on the specialization of the school, and can number even more if the circumstances demand.
The better schools have smaller classes (no more than forty students) so the teacher can do a better job. However, fifty to sixty students are the norm. From kindergarten on, regimentation is the rule of the day. Students are required to listen and take notes. The teacher traditionally has supreme authority and asking questions or commenting on course content in the classroom is considered to be an affront to the teacher and is thus forbidden.
Teacher aides, tutors, or parental help are unheard of in the classroom. Rote memorization remains the dominant methodology and students learn early on that silence and copious note taking are the only keys to success. The students themselves spend most of their day in the classroom, usually from eight to ten hours and the remainder of their time is devoted to homework and any additional tutoring or other supplemental courses that the parents can afford. At all levels of schooling, test results determine the caliber and quality of school the students will be able to attend, so continual study for capstone examinations do much in determining the direction and quality of the students’ lives. Some of the college students I talked to admitted that the rigorous demands placed on them by their teachers and parents left them with little or no childhood, a condition they vowed they would never impact on their children.
Levels of education
The Chinese post-secondary education system is vastly different from the American system. The semesters are twenty-one weeks long. Chinese college students often attend classes Monday through Friday as well as extra classes, tutoring, and study sessions on Saturday and Sunday. Entrance into Chinese colleges and universities is quite challenging and is determined by the infamous national Gaokao placement exam. Only about 10 to 20 percent of high school graduates go on to technical colleges or universities, and the exam results determine not only which universities they can attend, but also what majors they can study.
Once accepted by a university, the students move through their course of studies in cadres of thirty-five to forty. Each cohort takes the same classes, and the members share the same, gender separate dormitories, with eight people to a small, confined room. Often their shower and toilet facilities are in a separate building. One of the students from each cohort is appointed to be the class monitor, and they become tasked with assuring that all classroom and dormitory activities take place with as few problems as possible.
To be selected class monitor is indeed an honor. The students within each cohort and dorm room form close bonds and work together for the good of the whole. Interesting enough, most of the students I have talked with say there is little collaborative or interactive learning that goes on in the classroom.
A disciplined classroom is a motivated classroom
The totality of the Chinese education system serves to severely restrict creativity and individuality in students. Just as with the public education system, the college classroom experience involves listening, memorization, and continuous preparation for entrance exams and placements tests. However, the tests college students take are cumulative and will determine the employment they will acquire after graduation, and thus their future quality of life. The competitive nature of the Chinese education system has produced students who, for the most part, are very earnest, obedient, and extremely hardworking, yet who severely lack initiative.
I taught Chinese college students from all grade levels and their abilities and eagerness to learn continually impressed me. Unlike in America, problems with attendance and preparedness never interfered with classroom instruction, which made my teaching experience most enjoyable. And nearly to a person, the students continually exuded a childlike air about them… a certain navet… a sense of innocence to the ways of the world… indeed, they lacked the hardness present in so many of the students I deal with in my American classroom.
Education as reciprocation
The students who I worked with were highly motivated to do their best because they almost universally felt compelled to achieve success at any cost; doing so is their duty to not only society, but more importantly to their family. Parents often sacrifice a great deal in the education of their child, who comes to feel deeply obligated to repay them for the education they’ve received. Many of my students said the same thing: “I must get a good job and make much money so I can take care of my parents. They have worked so hard and spent so much money on my education.” The Chinese still place great emphasis on family, the ancient Confucian notion of Parental Piety, and on subservience to the society as a whole. The collectivism so sharply contrary to the individualist worldview of Westerners.
Every once and a while, one is given an epiphany, a moment of insight, if you will, that provides more information than volumes of books ever can. The first of my educational moments of enlightenment came when we visited several classrooms at a middle school. After the last class of the school day, I noticed many of the students were busy cleaning the windows in the classrooms, washing the blackboards, mopping the floors, and even cleaning the bathrooms. I asked the teacher giving us the tour of the school about this and her reply was, “These activities are part of the students’ education.” Schools have no janitorial force; all of the cleanup work is delegated to the students. “If the students are responsible for the condition of the classrooms and the school,” she continued, “they will put much more effort into and value upon their education. This is very much a part of our Socialist tradition… of Chairman Mao’s ideas of loving labor.”
The second insight came during the second month I was at Northeastern University. On a cold Sunday evening in February a sudden snow storm dropped several inches of snow on Shenyang. Very early the next morning, as I left our apartment building and began to make my way to my first class, I noticed students all over the campus industriously shoveling snow off of the sidewalks and streets and chipping away at the patches of ice that had formed near door stoops and on steps. They had apparently been at their tasks since daybreak. I could only look on, perplexed, not sure of what I was experiencing. When I met my first class, which coincidentally was a cross-cultural communications course, I took several minutes to explain my curiosity about their activities. They were more than happy to explain the mechanics and the purpose of the activity.
“It is our duty!” explained Albert proudly (Chinese students learning English usually assume an English name).
“Shovelling snow is part of our education.”
“Yes, no one should slip on the ice and become injured,” chimed in Tiffany, whose muffler remained just below her lips in the cold classroom.
“How is the work determined?” I asked, still trying to keep the conversation going.
“Each class is given an assigned area. If the area is not done satisfactorily, the responsible class will be punished,” answered Gerald.
“What happens if someone is lazy and doesn’t want to go out into the cold and sleeps in?” I continued.
“That person will be scorned and even ridiculed by his classmates… will be considered as a person who is unreliable and can’t be trusted,” said Gail.
Intrigued by the ingenuousness of their answers, I tried to get as much information as I could. “And I saw the girls shoveling and chipping just as hard as the boys. Why is this?”
Connie, who was always timid in class, finally found her voice. “Chairman Mao did much for establishing the equality of women to men. He maintained that women need to stand with men in society, not behind them.”
Perhaps with a little chagrin, I concluded the conversation with a joke about what my students would probably tell me to do with the shovel if I commanded them to go out and remove snow from our college’s sidewalks… a joke no one really understood. But I had found a “teachable moment,” or rather a “learnable moment,” an instance in which the students and I were able to look beyond ourselves and jointly comment on the world around us. And not only had I found out more information about my environment, but I was also beginning to find those rare moments of teaching when I learned much more than I could ever impart.
I had two such other sudden leaps of understanding just this past year when I went to Shenyang. In my several trips there I had never had the occasion to go in the fall, so because we went during September and October on that visit I was able to observe two very remarkable occurrences. The first was on September 10th, which I did not realize was National Day of the Teacher, a nationwide holiday in which students around the country show their appreciation for their teachers by presenting them with gifts of cards and flowers.
We knew the day was a holiday for teachers, but we were incredibly surprised when two of our students appeared at our door with two large arrangements of flowers… a token they said of the gratitude all of our students had for us being their teachers. Traditionally, the relationship of the teacher to the student has almost mirrored that of the one between parent and child, a concept that comes from the time of Confucius (Kongfuzi).
This insight was followed up shortly thereafter with yet another, when I was visiting the Foreign Studies College at Northeastern University, just after the beginning of the semester in September. From several blocks away I heard a chorus of hundreds of voices singing a martial anthem. As I walked onto the large concrete square in front of the twelve-story Administration Building, I saw arrayed there at least two thousand students dressed in the drab green of military uniforms. Some were marching, some were standing in large cadres on the building steps, and other were engaged in military hand-to-hand combat tactics, all under the direction of regular Chinese Army instructors.
Later I came to find out that all college freshmen, at every college and university around the country, are required to receive a full three weeks of military training before they even begin their classes. Some of the teachers I talked to explained how that requirement was purposeful in helping the students prepare for the rigors of college life and studies; others said it had come out of the Tiananmen Square incident and had been implemented to prevent university students from engaging in anti-government organizing and activities. Again, the differences between the students of China and those of America are often stark.
The influence of the West and the 21st Century
But the restlessness and impatience of youth is universal. In China the imposition of Western influences, brought about by the rise of capitalism and the driving force of commercialism and advertising, movies and videos, the Internet and other glimpses of outside cultures, have generated a rising sense of not dissent, but perhaps discontent, maybe uneasiness with the status quo.
The Chinese youth of today are not the same as that of twenty or even ten years ago, and this groundswell is probably most noticeable in education. Though still hard-working and conscientious, contemporary students are progressively coming to expect more than just a passive exchange of information and knowledge during the course of their learning; they are, I think, gradually asking for a more participatory role in their education, which might, in the end, spill over into the broader social and political realms.
This need for change in educational methodology is exerting growing pressure on the teaching profession in China to change. The Chinese teachers and professors I worked with were equally industrious and eager to help and learn. And though the teacher remains the center of authority in the classroom, they are continually asked for much and given little in return; they, for the most part, are underpaid, making a fraction of their American counterparts, while doing more with less. And they sense the limitations of their traditional methods of teaching, those that have been ingrained into the culture since the time of Kongfuzi. With the new generation of students coming into their classrooms, the old methods prove to not be working so well.
The twenty-first century is requiring people who can do more than just memorize; instead, abstract thinkers are going to be needed, and the teachers and professors are looking to the West, strangely enough, to provide them with the teaching tools to accomplish this goal. And just as with their students, when exposed to new and different ways of teaching, such as collaborative learning and independent thought, Chinese teachers are slowly finding out that melding innovation with tradition brings success.
At the risk of over generalization, I can say that the students, and certainly the faculty members, are extremely different from those I have grown accustomed to in America. Because education is not a right, but rather a privilege in China, both groups for the most part take their studies, educational mission, and teaching responsibilities quite seriously. As a result, I submit that both the American and Chinese cultures and educational systems can learn a great deal from each other.
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