Recently we've had Chinese and non-Chinese perspectives on Chinese schools (background here). For balance, a Chinese and a non-Chinese view in the same post!
Reasons I'm offering such long first-hand testimony: (1) no one has to read it! (2) many things about life in China -- and yes, life in other places -- are conveyed not in theoretical summaries but in accumulations of day by day experiences, like those recounted here. Several more still in the queue. Also, bear in mind that the foreigners writing in are ones who generally came to Chinese schools to "do something good." They're not here for the big bucks or the easy life but because they thought it would be valuable as well as interesting to be part of China's development at this stage.
First, from a foreigner now teaching in China:
The articles that you have featured are focused largely on University students in China. I teach English in the public middle schools (what we call grades 6, 7, and 8). The problems in Chinese education show in the University students, but to fix them you need to look at what's happening with students who are much younger.
My eighth graders had a unit studying the radio, so I asked them to write their own radio shows. I put them in groups and told them to write 3-4 segments, including at least one conversation. Their English is more than good enough for an activity like this, and I did get several good shows, including a show where the news segment had some fake news and ended with the reader telling listeners that "some of this news may be fake, and we are not responsible for what people do after hearing this information".
I also, however, got an enormous number of segments taken word-for-word from their books or newspapers; news items read directly from something they printed out or a magazine article; etc. Several students attempted to make conversations by having people alternate reading sentences from one of these printouts. The most extreme was when one group took a printout from a radio show and "wrote" it by changing the names. None of this was hidden - they know that I've seen the books and newspapers they were quoting from, and sometimes they would show me a magazine article and ask me how to pronounce one of the words. Often they'd understand the very general gist of the story but not the details, and it was very apparent in the way they said the words.
It's not unusual for middle school students all over the world to try to cheat, or to get out of doing things, and god knows my students have enough homework. The problem is that they considered this to be perfectly acceptable and did not understand why I had a problem with it. I am constantly confiscating homework from a student, only to have another student explain that it's actually his homework but the first student was using it. If you ask one of my students, they'll say "cheating is bad", and they have many reminders in their English books that they shouldn't copy, but they seem to dissociate this from their daily lives.
This problem has many sources. I ask my students how their holidays were, and they uniformly say "bad", because they have too much homework - it's no wonder they don't have time to do it all. My classes have 50 students; it's difficult for a teacher to parse each homework assignment and ensure that it was not copied from someone else. But the biggest problem is with the emphasis on rote learning, on one right answer. If there is only one acceptable answer, it's nearly impossible to identify copied homework. Two correct papers look exactly alike. But if there are many correct answers, as there should be in subject like English, two papers that look exactly alike should arouse suspicion.
Creativity and critical thinking can't be taught, as Jiang Qian said, by steeping students in original business plans; they can and must be exercised, however, by asking students to once in a while exert them. Science breakthroughs, business start-ups - these require creativity, but the Chinese educational system doesn't foster this. Maybe it is true that the system is good for all but the top 10%, but I believe that a dose of creativity is beneficial to everyone, no matter what they do. And when it comes to those top 10%, an inability to exercise these skills is, in my opinion, pretty much fatal. It's depressing for me to see my really talented students truly believing that this is what I want.
Now, from a Chinese person with extensive experience overseas:
I had a pretty low opinion on Chinese education when I was in China. Certain subjects such as history and Marxist philosophy are just crammed in without any critical discussion. But when I came to US and worked as TA for a top state university, I changed my mind a bit. Almost none of my students (first-year economics) are interested in understanding the materials critically. Most of them are just looking for a good grade. Also the math preparation some of my students received are so inadequate, I doubt they would be able to graduate from highschool in China, not mentioning entering a top university. My classmate told me a story that one of his student could not do 7*7 by hand. From what I read in newspapers about quality of inner city schools in US, the situation may be even worse than I see. So the conspiracy theory one of your reader talked about that the poor quality of rural area schools is set on purpose by Chinese government to keep people ignorant is far-fetched. Compared with some of the public schools in US where so much resource are spent with so few results, I think the education system in China is not so bad.
I don't think Nobel Prize is a valid measure to compare different education systems. Most of the best scientific talents in China are attracted to US, studying and working here. This alone can make any comparison meaningless. Also scientific research in US was weak till 20th century. I remember reading Schumpeter's discussion about why there were so few first-rate American economists till very late in the 19th century, his explanation was that the best talents in US were attracted to entrepreneurial adventures in a fast growing economy. Similar things may be happening in China right now.
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