Back to the gaokao....

... following this discussion of Chinese education, Chinese management and research styles, and whether there is a "creativity" problem for people trained in China. Main theme so far about the gaokao, or 高考 -- the standardized, nationwide, make-or-break test for university admission: no one likes it, but many Chinese people feel that it is fairer than any likely alternative.

Today, two dispatches. First, a short one from a young Irish high-tech entrepreneur now working in the United States. Then, a long one from a foreigner teaching at a mainland Chinese university. 

From the young Irish technologist:

Am enjoying posts on the gaokao. As it happens, the Irish education system functions virtually identically. The "Leaving Certificate" is taken by every Irish student in their final year. It consists of three core subjects (English, math, a language), plus three tertiary subjects; your results in each subject add up to a single score (max of 600); this score is the sole determinant of undergraduate college admission. There's much hand-wringing over students' foreign-language abilities--or lack thereof--even after years of study. It's often criticized for excessive emphasis on rote learning. And it is ultimately brutally fair: students rank courses in order of preference, and a computer program fills them by allocating places to successively lower-scoring students.
Despite the similarities, I've never heard accusations of a lack of creativity in students... and having gone through school in Ireland and college in the US, I can't say I noticed much difference in creativity or critical thinking. All of which may mean that the Chinese education system (or at least its superficial attributes) are not the problem.

(As it happens, I never sat the Leaving Cert, so I don't have direct experience with it. Unlike the gaokao, you can't sit it early, so I dropped out of school and taught myself the A Levels (British equivalent) instead. Also, I guess I should qualify the US/Ireland comparison. At college, the students were certainly smarter on average, but I don't think they were relatively more creative.)

From the teacher:

I'm another foreign university English teacher in China. I'm currently in Yantai, Shandong Province. I'm an experienced teacher from the U.S. and I've been in China for almost three years. One of my standard classroom practices is to pose a general question and ask for responses. I find that after a couple of weeks, when the students have gotten used to me, most of them are willing to risk raising their hands and offering their opinions.

One of my regular discussion subjects is the students' experiences so far with the Chinese educational system. More than any other, this one is greeted with groans and rolled eyes.
As many of your responders have noted, the exam system is valued for its perceived fairness and egalitarianism, even though there is also a perception that rich kids have better chances than poor ones.

But despite their belief in the fairness of the system, the students are nearly unanimous in hating it and feeling oppressed by it.

They are under tremendous pressure during their public school years (K-12) and the pressure accelerates hugely during the last three years of high school.
Many of them talk about dreams and goals abandoned to the imperative to study for test. They talk about their admiration for what they perceive as the emphasis placed on "practice" over "theory" in the western education system, something that's not possible when everything for 12 years is focused on a single three day exam.

I start the discussion by asking what a well educated person is and what effect the college entrance exam has on their education. They don't generally understand what I'm getting at.

I ask them about the nature of knowledge. As an example, I ask them when Mao ZeDong and the Communist Party won the civil war and created the New China. They can all answer "1949". I then ask how it happened that what started as a rag tag band of peasant revolutionaries managed to take over and unify the most populous country on earth. Deer in the headlights. The best any of them can do is platitudes like "They won the hearts of the people." I ask which question is more likely to show up on a test. By now I have most of them with me.

Then I ask them a more specific question: When is the best time to start studying for a test? The answers to that one range from "a month before" to "the night before". When I ask them if and when they forget the things they learned, the answers are very definite and almost always a mirror of when they start studying.

I ask them about the relative importance for getting a good grade of attending class, reading the assignments, and participating in class discussions. The answer is that the only thing that really matters is the final exam.

All of this is reflected in the quality of homework assignments, which are usually dashed off at the last possible moment, copying text from the assigned reading based on a key word search rather than any attempt at actually comprehending the text or the question. Almost no attempt is made to achieve any kind of higher order understanding. It's also reflected in classroom behavior: sleeping, doing homework and cramming for other classes, text messaging and playing games on cell phones, reading magazines, etc.

This attitude is further reinforced by university policies that require the course grade to be based 70% on the final exam grade. Other teachers have no hesitation to require student attendance at activities and events that force them to skip classes, since the teachers know as well as the students that nothing important happens in class.

These students are not stupid or foolish people. Their behavior is a rational response to the system in which they have been raised. Attending class, paying attention in class, doing homework, none of that matters.

The only thing that matters is the test, and doing well on the test is a matter of memorizing a number of decontextualized facts. The worst affect by far of the exam system is that it creates a distorted and poverty stricken idea of what education is and how to engage in it. These students hunger for real engagement, real knowledge, real education, but they don't know what it is or how to look for it.

The thing that bothers me more than anything else, though, is that the educational system in the U.S. is being pushed down the same road. The increasing emphasis on standardized testing, something which teachers almost universally deplore, is leading to the sinification of American education. If things continue in the direction they are going, the U.S. will soon have a system that is just as rigid and anti-creative as China. From having taught in both places, I think the U.S. is already well on its way.

The biggest difference is the response of the students. Whereas the Chinese students tend to buckle down and work hard at what they consider to be a useless task in order to please the teachers and justify the tremendous investments that their parents have made in them, American students become even more bored, alienated, and rebellious in a system that they can see isn't interested in their actual minds.

More to come. Thanks to all correspondents.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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