Saturday, February 15, 2014

Episode Thirteen: Chinese Education

The Chinese Educational System

I am most definitely not going to be happy to leave in 6 months (life here is too fascinating), but Z misses American school a lot. Now that he is on school vacation (until Feb 24), he is OK and happy, but school is BRUTAL (draconian education style; teachers hit the kids on the head and face for not doing the work up to standards and children are publicly shamed regularly). When asked, Z describes school as “torture.”

His teacher is nice to him because he is the only non-Chinese student in the school, but he has to witness all the other stuff in the classroom and it bothers him a great deal. Not only that, but having to sit for hours on end without moving is impossible for him. All the other foreign parents I know send their children to private international schools. The companies they work for pay the fees. The fees for those schools are out of my reach financially. Home schooling? Both Z and I would lose our minds. He needs lots of interaction with other people on any given day. Because he is attending public school where no one speaks English (outside of simple sentences in English class) Z is learning Mandarin in leaps and bounds; children who attend international schools do not speak more than a very little bit of Chinese. Mostly, the experience of attending public school in China is giving him a wild ride on the Chinese Public Education Train. All aboard!

While relaxing on the beach in Sanya, Z and I were talking about the differences between the American Educational System and the Chinese Educational System and making a list. The contrast is sharp and shocking. I was always skeptical when I heard people like Arne Duncan (Secretary of Education under Obama) chastise Americans by saying, "Chinese children are out-scoring American children in math by 80 percent." Now I have even more reason to feel indignant about that unfair comparison. These children memorize math equations and facts until they can do them at lightning speed, but that is all they can do. They memorize, memorize, memorize. But ask them to think critically or solve an analytic problem and they are like turtles on their backs. Do we want a population of children and then adults like that? Sure, they "outscore" American children on bubble exams of math problems because our educational system doesn't depend on "drilling, drilling, drilling." I told an American friend who is an educator that third graders in China can do triple digit multiplication in their heads. She said, “They must have an algorithm, a mnemonic, some sort of math “game” that helps them." Nope. Just lightning-fast memorization of their times tables.

Because of Z's experience, I am even more certain that what they are doing is not only wrong, but bad for children. We can't hold up Chinese children's math skills as a model of success. It is only a model of bad educational practices and horrible treatment of children. The children here do nothing but study/memorize.

As John Henry Newman believed when designing the Liberal Arts system that is now part and parcel of the U.S.A.’s university system, you can’t have a strong Republic unless you have a widely educated populous. The people not only need to be educated in a broad range of topics, but they need to be able to think critically and analyze. The Chinese Educational System educates in the other direction. Rote memorization of facts. Recitation. Don’t think, just memorize. Don’t ask “why?” It isn’t for you to know “why?” Homework each night is dominated by hours of math problems (the same math problems over and over again) and memorizing Chinese myths, parables, fables, and Confucian texts. These all must be recited word-for-word the next day in class. If you can't recite perfectly, well, the day will not go well for you.

At the university level, education is seen as job training, focused exclusively on skills needed for employment. Each university in China focuses on a field. Only classes related directly to that field are taught at that university. Xidian is a “telecommunications university” (in Xi’an there are 52 universities ranging from the Welding University to the Railroad University to the Petrochemical University to the Medical University). At Xidian, there are only classes offered that relate to telecommunications. Don’t expect to see an art, music, psychology, literature, sociology, or even a chemistry class at the university. What we in the United States take for granted as part of a university education (all those “general education requirements” that make us well-rounded and open up our minds to different ideas and perspectives) are simply not part of universities here. There are art classes at the “Fine Arts University,” but at none of the other 51 universities in Xi’an. I haven’t heard of a “Sociology University” or a “Psychology University,” so classes for those subjects may not be taught in this city of 6 million people at all.

You get the idea.

I see the results of this narrowly focused educational approach that hinges on rote learning and job-training skills in my college students. Very, very few of them can think critically or analyze. They can memorize and summarize with amazing speed. But ask their opinion on something? Nope. Most can't do it. And they really can't imagine that there is more than one answer to a question. I have had students say to me, in exasperation, “Just tell us the answer!” I patiently respond, “There is not one answer, but many. What do you think?” A few weeks ago one of my frustrated students said, “It doesn’t matter what I think. I need to know the answer. It is your job to tell us the answers.” It is so very, very sad. They are college students, but their critical thinking and analytical skills are about those of a 3rd grader in the states.

Yes, a third grader in China can do triple digit multiplication in their head (quick! What’s 314 x 233? Too late. A Chinese child has already provided the answer). Yes, they can blow through pages of problems in minutes, leaving Z in the dust, barely finishing the first ten problems on his four-page exam. The Chinese children can do that because they memorize for hours at a time during the day and again when they get home at night. They do equations over and over and over again. You would not believe the redundancy of the homework. It has been the same homework for months, just different numbers. The monotony should kill them, but it doesn’t. That memorization part of their brain is the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1980s era biceps. 

Even over the New Year’s holiday, Chinese school children do not get a break. Z’s teacher sent home two workbooks with each student that were to be completed by the end of the break. I thought, “Oh, finally! Maybe now they are moving on to something new.” Nope. The same stuff. The same stuff they have been studying for the past four months. Just more of it. Keep doing it. Faster. Faster. Faster. Do it until you don’t even have to think. It is not accelerated math. It is not different math. This math is not anything different from what third graders in the U.S. are studying. What is different is that third graders in the U.S. are also learning other things, too. In the U.S. teachers teach a concept, they make sure the students know it, and then they move on. To other things. Like problem solving, as in “Here is a situation. How would you resolve it? What are some possible/probable solutions?” Critical thinking sorts of things. Analytical tasks. Open-ended questioning.

For a communist government, the “don’t think, just memorize” approach to education is essential. The last thing you want to create is a billion or so people who are practiced at asking “why? Or “how?” and expecting some answers – or worse yet – a population of people who are capable of arriving at various answers, all equally plausible.

Recently the government had an "expert" on t.v. during the 7-8 p.m. hour of “news” (every channel in China plays the same “news” at 7 p.m. – your remote is not broken; it is the same news on every channel, issued by the government). This “expert” said that the biggest contributor to China’s air pollution problem was cooking oil. That's right! Not cars, not factories, but cooking. And people believed it. I had a college professor say to me, "It's true. I heard the expert say it." Why does the government tell them the pollution problem is cooking oil? Because then the people are responsible for the pollution, not the government. Why do people believe that ridiculous answer? Because even highly-educated folks have not been taught to think critically and analytically. There is one answer. Someone will tell you what it is.

It has been good for Z to experience the major differences between these educational systems, but we are both glad it is just for a year. The mind-numbing redundancy and rigidity of the school work makes him hate school. He now waxes nostalgic about his school days in St. Joseph, Missouri. In China there is no such thing as positive reinforcement (that is seen as coddling). Negative reinforcement to correct errant behavior is the only model these teachers know, it seems. But I’ll let Z tell you about what he has noted as the differences between his primary school experience here in China v. the United States.

Z’s blog 1

Hello. This is not a blog written by Kay. This is Z’s first blogpost on the educational system of China, and boy, do I have a lot to say. There is going to be two solid pages of freakin’ rant about Chinese school coming up right after these previews of the new movie: “The sound of Zhongwen*”.

I speak legend Chinese in America. But in CHINA? I’m not so good. Okay, I admit, I am a little more fluent than mom (she would say a LOT more fluent), but that doesn’t matter when I’m speaking to a Chinese person (99% of my days out). Here is an example conversation between me and some guy named Yu Bingshan.

YU: Ni jiao shen-me ming-zi?

ME: Wo jiao Zeph.

YU: Ni de xiao-xue zai nail-ah?

ME: Wo zai xi-dian xiao-xue.

YU: Ni shi na-li guo jia de?

ME: Wo shi mei-guo ren.

YU: Blah blah blah de blah?

ME: Duibuqi, wo bu dong-le.

Einglish translation: I told him my name, school, and country, but past that it could be anything. Mei-yo le.

Coming soon to a Wordpress near you.

*Zhongwen = Chinese language

 The main event

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, let’s get ready to… Ramble! On and on about the differences between education in China and America. *Funky techno blare “Du du du rere rere du du…”*

Concrete, bare walls
Walls decorated with all sorts of cool posters, paintings, and educational information
Rows of Desks
Desks arranged as the teacher or class wants; rarely in rows
Nothing but blandness in general
Color, texture, and lots to look at
Uniforms and scarves to honor Chairman Mao (who is over-honored, in my opinion)
Dress code = no belly shirts, no caps, no flip-flops or shoes with wheels (other than that, you are good to go)
Weekly hand/nail hygiene checks at the school gate (if you are dirty, your name is written on the blackboard inside the gate to shame you)
Be as dirty as you wanna be, as long as you don’t have head lice
Organized Tai Chi every morning and every afternoon in the courtyard (twice a day for 20 minutes each)
No group activities or exercise outside of P.E. class
National Anthem (if you move, you are punished by having to stand for 30 minutes outside your classroom without moving at the end of the school day)
Pledge of Allegiance, but no big deal if you don’t  want to say it
Rote memorization and recitation for four hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon (if you slip up in your recitation – no books allowed – the class chants the correct words and you have to begin again from the beginning of the passage)
Critical thinking and analysis is emphasized. No memorization or recitation, but lots of reading and reading aloud
Ten minute potty/classroom cleaning/recess breaks every 50 minutes
Recess once a day for 30 minutes; bathroom breaks as needed, you just get up and go (as long as the teacher approves)
The teacher has the right to hit students with her book, their books, or her hand if they do not do their homework, are late, or mess up in class, or if the teacher is just in a bad mood
No hitting students. Ever. Teachers are really nice to students and use positive reinforcement 99.99% of the time
The teacher will rip up a student’s homework if the work is not satisfactory
Teacher will put red ink on the homework if it is not satisfactory
Students often cry in class
Students are often smiling and talking in class
Teachers will shame a student by shaming his/her parents
Teacher will talk privately with a student at the teacher’s desk
Everyone must leave the school for lunch; students whose parents work must go home with women who will fix them lunch (called “lunch tables”); after lunch, everyone must take a nap
Everyone has lunch at school and sometimes parents and grandparents come to have lunch, too; no sleeping at school
Eye and head self-massage twice a day (morning  and afternoon); double when you have art class
Bullies make you want to slam your head on the slide during recess (other than that, no head pain)
Chinese students are taught to obey and never ask “why?”; it is like “why?” is the teacher’s fire-breathing cue
Teachers are constantly asking students “why?”  and students have full permission to ask the teacher “why?”
Students clean the classrooms and they do this during the ten-minute breaks; they have mops, brooms, and little watering cans to sprinkle water on the floor
We have janitors
No books in the classroom (other than the students’ text books)
Comfortable reading areas with shelves of books in every classroom, waiting to be cracked open and  . . . (sorry! I am a book enthusiast)
No school library
Lots of great books in the school library/media center
No school gymnasium
Of course there is a gym. It is used for P.E., school programs (none in China!), and band and chorus practice
No parents are allowed (ever!); even when there was a school-wide Tai Chi competition, no parents were allowed to watch. Parents had to stand outside the gate and crane to see even a bit of the competition
Parents are encouraged to come to lunch and to volunteer at the school; parent participation is a big part of school life (I love it when my mom comes and brings Jimmy John’s for lunch)
The only time parents are invited to school is if a student is in BIG trouble; it is never, ever good (no such thing as “parent/teacher conference”) – my mom had to go talk to the teacher once. Don’t ask.
Parents are invited to various programs and events at the school throughout the year; I am happy to see my mom at my school
There are 50-55 students per classroom; 7-8 classes per grade; 2,500 students in the school
Classes have about 20 students in them and if there are more students, a teacher must have a “para-educator” to help
Chinese is taught for at least two hours every day; Ditto for math (and only rote memorization)
There is never two-hours of one subject
Science is boring; it is lecture (no fun experiments or group activities)
Science is fun as fun can be; we do lots and lots and lots of experiments. If not, we are watching an educational video
Students must sit in their seat at all times
Students do sit, but they also move around a lot
No school band or sports teams
No theater or plays
Reader’s theater is one of the fun things about school
No field trips
Field trips every fall and spring to really interesting or exciting places; all heck breaks loose on field trip days
Hour of “mandatory” study time after school; everyone gets out of school at 5:30 p.m.
School ends at 3:10
No decorations on classroom walls (sometimes the teacher draws a picture with colored chalk on the board)
Student art and work is put on the walls
No encouragement for reading independently; only a chart to indicate “good behavior”
Charts and competitions to encourage reading, e.g. Reading Counts Quizzes
No “free time” or “D.E.A.R.” time (Drop Everything And Read)
Daily D.E.A.R. time and other times that we can read what we want
No fundraisers or philanthropies
Too many fundraisers and philanthropies; at least once a month or more
Weekly exams in math and Chinese that determine class rank (and students sit according to class rank) – applies to grades 4-6 only
Quarterly exams, not including the M.A.P. exam at the end of the year
No films in class
Educational films in class and we get to watch fun movies when it is too cold or wet to go outside for recess
Sometimes students have to stay inside during the 10-minute breaks because the pollution is too dangerous outside
Students sometimes have to stay inside because it is too cold/wet to go outside for recess
Students stand up to answer a question when the teacher calls on him/her
Students raise their hands, but sometimes just blurt out the answer to questions (because the questions are so easy and the students can’t control themselves)
Every day the students greet the teacher by standing when she enters the room and saying, in unison, “Laoshi, nin hao?” (Teacher, how are you?) The teacher responds by saying, “Hen hao. Qing zou.” (Very good. Please sit.) The students respond: “Xie Xie, Laoshi.” (Thank you, Teacher.)
The students don’t greet the teacher or the teacher is in class when the students arrive
When leaving school at lunch and the end of the day, students line up in rows and march outside. Before they are “dismissed” they must chant a short military chant with corresponding actions: “Rest! Back to Attention! Put your arms in front of you, crossed! Put them back to your side! Check your line! You are dismissed.”
Students line up in rows to leave the classroom every day, but then immediately run down the stairs, trip and fall, and create a bowling school of doom
Absolutely never, never, never interrupt the teacher; if you need to go to the bathroom, tough
You can raise your hand and ask the teacher a question and most times she won’t be mad, she will actually call on you and answer your question
No such thing as a “school bus”
The school buses pick us up near our house and take us to school if we live too far to walk
3-4 hours of homework every night and it is always the same: doing problems in the textbooks and memorizing passages to recite the next day
Homework is typically different each day and sometimes there isn’t any work that needs to be done after school
No “group projects” or creative lessons or assignments
Why do you think I like school in the United States so much? It’s FUN!
The same teacher for six freakin’ years (and the same students in each grade; nothing changes)
New teacher each year and new students every year
Students buy their textbooks and keep them at home, lugging them to school every day
Textbooks are kept at school and belong to the school
No “special education” help or “language learning” help
There are programs that help out kids who need it so they can stay in school and get the same education as everyone else
English is a main subject in school
Chinese is not a subject in school



Z has 60 days left of school between now and summer vacation. What he does enjoy are the friends he has made in school. He misses them now that he hasn’t seen them for a couple months. Other than that, “I can’t think of anything I like about school.” He only has one year of this experience. 60 more days. The saddest part: the Chinese children have a lifetime of it.

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