Chinese Education: Students, Teachers, and Methodology
By John Paddison
With my interest and background in education, my teaching in China placed me in a unique position to do 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 a number of elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as several community colleges; in addition, I 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 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 people. China has roughly the same land mass as the United States. However, a good portion of that area is uninhabitable or sparsely populated: the Gobi Desert is non-arable and the Himalayas and the Himalayan plateau regions have proven to be largely useless; the eastern half of the nation is where the majority of the people are clustered, with a good deal of the population concentrated in and around the large cities located in that part of the country’s land mass. In addition, seventy-five to eighty percent of the people are still agrarian. Such disparate distribution and density of the population certainly makes feeding, housing, caring for, and educating the citizens an ongoing challenge, with education being a key focus.
Every school day in China, over 300 million students study in Chinese classrooms… 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 is extremely limited. And because very few people can ever cross that bridge successfully, entry into 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 is 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 in the classroom are unheard of. 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 (national exams at the completion of fourth, sixth, eight, tenth, and twelfth grades) 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 impart on their own children.
The Chinese post-secondary education system is vastly different from the America system. The semesters are twenty-one weeks long. Chinese college students often attend classes Monday through Friday as well as extra classes, tutoring, and/or study sessions on Saturday and Sunday. Entrance into Chinese colleges and universities is quite difficult 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 exactly 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 he or she becomes 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. 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. 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 he or she has 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-by the thousands-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.