Further on the 高考

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From Joshua Davis, a foreigner teaching English in China, a further critique of the nationwide college-admissions exam, the gaokao, following this one earlier today by another foreign teacher. These are worth noting less for the novelty of the complaint (objecting to the effects of the test on Chinese education is like objecting to the effects of money on American politics) than for giving examples of how central and powerful the test's effects are. Mr. Davis writes:

Earlier this year, I decided that one of the things that stifles creativity in China more than anything else was high school. All Chinese students are required to take an all inclusive, end-all, be-all exam at the end of their high school careers called the Gao Kao.. If I can remember from the top of my head, this test includes physics, biology, math, politics, Chinese, English, history, geography, and maybe 3 or 4 others.

Because this is the only grade that actually matters in high school, it's the sole determiner for students going on to college. There is no college essay, interviews, etc. The only thing that matters is the gao kao.
Now combine that with the fact that modern Chinese society under the one child policy produces extremely edgy parents who desperately want their children to succeed in a society that produces 4 million college graduates per year and only 1.6 million college level jobs. The result is that high school students in China are under extreme pressure to score highly on the gao kao. Thus, since high schools also compete with each other for government grants in the form of higher scores on the gao kao, you have the average Chinese high school student's day looking like this:

Wake up
Morning reading
Breakfast
Class
Lunch
Nap
Class
Dinner
Evening reading
Bed

Also, though it varies from school to school, most of my students tell me that in high school, they only got 2 days off every month. Quite a difference from when I was in high school and after 2:30, I just went home and played video games and slept all day on the weekends!...  In my experience, most of the time, if the student is not doing required homework, they are doing extra homework, taking extra classes, doing extra reading (class related -- I've actually been told that parents who discover their children doing recreational reading will scold them for not studying), taking private English lessons, and in rare cases, studying an instrument. This sort of pressure, I think, is the reason why, when I taught some of my Chinese friends here how to play American football yesterday, none of them knew how to throw a ball effectively; and why when I first met my (close to 200) students, only 2 actively practice Chinese martial arts, 1 plays soccer, and none play an instrument.

Lastly, a strange phenomenon that I've not heard of anywhere else is that students in high schools can often be seen reading in classrooms here -- and then looking up at the ceiling and mouthing the words they just read. The goal here is to memorize what's been written. As an example, I work at a medical university with over 100 foreign students. A few of the students told me that they were attending a lecture one time, given by a Chinese student, in English. They noticed very quickly that they were able to read exactly what the student was saying as she said it from their textbook because she had memorized, word for word, her entire lecture. Another example can be seen with students who take the post-graduate entrance examination and memorize, again word for word, all the essays that will be tested in the exam.

I think it's this linear, memorization-based (as Randy Pollock noted) learning environment with an absolute lack of recreational time in an extremely high pressure society that smothers the students' creativity.

Some Chinese perspective coming shortly.

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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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