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Today on Chinese education: shadow of the 高考

From Benjamin, a foreign teacher who recounts what his Chinese students don't like about their educational experience. The big focus here is the 高考, or gaokao, the nationwide college entrance exam that, as in some other Asian countries, is the make or break moment for many life prospects. Americans think their kids are stressed by the SAT.  Hah!

The ripple effects of the gaokao (and its Japanese and Korean counterparts) are a familiar theme in complaints about Asian school systems. But after the jump, Benjamin gets his students to explain what a better Chinese school system would look like. He writes:

Having taught English here for the past year, mostly to recent high school and college graduates (and a few primary and middle school students), I have had countless opportunities to hear what Chinese students have to say about their educational system.

They don't like it that much, and it goes beyond ideas about critical thinking and creativity. They have said that they find it a very stifling experience, filled with long days focused on boring books and lectures with rote assignments to ensure that they've memorized the essential facts (and pre-decided interpretations) and mastered the essential skills.

Which skills and facts they have to learn are decided, of course, by what will appear on the college entrance exams. Concerns in America about standardized assessment leading to a "teach-to-the-test" mentality pale in comparison to the opinions I've heard from my students. They tell me that their lives up until the end of high school have been almost exclusively focused on prepping for that test.

Their English skills provide the perfect example of what this does to their abilities. I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what the subjunctive mood was, but my students certainly could. At the same time, they have trouble with anything more than basic spoken conversation. I tell my students that practice is more important than studying for learning a language, and they agree with me. But they also say that the tests they have to take focus on recognizing esoteric vocabulary and grammar rather than being able to use the basics in flexible and expressive ways. And their classes throughout grade school and college are built towards those tests.

They also have issues at the college level. The truth is that, for the vast majority of my students, their parents and their test scores choose their college majors, and even when the students have much of a say, there is a strong cultural bias towards "practical" (business, engineering, medicine, and law) majors. Than again, having been so focused on the test for so long, many of them have no real idea of what they would choose even if they had the chance.

Most of their motivation in studying comes from a desire for a good job when they graduate rather than an interest in the material. I have a friend who teaches International Affairs at a major university in Beijing, and after an informal survey, she realized that most of her students were in her class because their scores weren't high enough to get into the International Business program.

There is a strong silver lining in all of this: the students themselves are very aware of the limitations that their school system creates, and they earnestly desire to make up for it. They want more chances for analytical essays, independent research, class discussions, and, most interestingly enough, social and community development.

With each batch of students, I run an activity of designing a new high school, and there are some striking trends. They want:

- smaller classes and more choice in the classes they can take. While still fairly directed by American standards, they mostly set up schools that have a few classes that everyone has to take, but then a few concentration areas that students can choose between. Also, they wanted to be able to forgo an academic class or two for the sake of pursuing the arts, such as singing, dancing, or painting.

- more chances for independent analysis. They want to do some of their own research and have class discussions. They don't want ideas to simply be handed to them.

- more of a connection to the real world. They want to have the chance to do community service near their schools, such as tutoring and helping to take care of their elderly, and they also want to take their classes outside of their schools. One of the most impressive examples a student gave me was for an environmental science class being built around an effort to clean up a river, stream, or forest near the school.

- the chance for social development. They want clubs and sports, but they also want things like more free time to spend with their friends, school dances, and for dating to be allowed on campuses. I even had a student say, in full seriousness, that he thought there should be a class teaching students how to interact with the opposite sex.

So I'm fairly optimistic about the future for the Chinese education system. The most important people, the students, are aware of the limitations and have a lot of good ideas for how to change things for the better.

This is a more optimistic conclusion than many other correspondents reach. (His students apparently are more "creative" in their thinking about school design than the Harvard freshman Jerome Doolittle mentioned.) Some of those other conclusions appearing soon.

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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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