China may top international educational comparisons, but at what cost? Matthew T. Hora, PhD, Assistant Professor of Adult & Higher Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, shares observations from his recent trip to China.
On a recent visit to the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao to study the skills gap between higher education and the labor market, I had a different translator with me each day. They were mostly female English instructors in their early 30s, and they accompanied me on tours of cavernous manufacturing facilities, boardroom conversations with HR directors and recently hired workers, as well as interviews with college professors and administrators.
One of the biggest surprises of my trip, however, had nothing to do with the state of China’s workforce--it was how my translators spoke so unambiguously about the negative aspects of the Chinese educational system and parenting culture, and yet, at the same time, seemed to embrace them.
My translators described raising children with a combination of joy and love for their offspring on one hand, but also as a stress-filled (for child and parent alike), non-stop frenzy of academic and extracurricular activities on the other. Hours of homework every night starting in the early elementary grades, night school beginning for some after 3rd grade, martial arts, and music lessons, all resulting in a jam-packed schedule with precious little time for sports or unfettered play.
Why is this so? Many parents throughout East Asia, particularly among the booming middle class of the eastern seaboard of China, feel that unless they enroll their children in afterschool lessons and generally enforce academic rigor at an early age, they won’t be competitive for the national entrance exam (gaokao) that, for many Chinese, dictates a person’s entire future.
I had read about the prominent role that the gaokao plays in Chinese society, how it serves as a filtering mechanism for a huge country where over 8 million students each year compete for a limited number of spots in the nation’s postsecondary system. But I was unprepared for the degree to which a high-stakes testing culture, which includes assigning students a number indicating their ranking within their classrooms to their gaokao score, governs how children are taught and raised.
In his book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, Chinese-born education scholar Yong Zhao writes:
The gaokao affects every aspect of China's education system. Although it takes place only at the end of high school, its effects trickle down all the way to elementary school and even preschool. It affects the whole experience of students in and out of school.... Almost all observed educational practices and outcomes, good or bad, are somehow related to the gaokao."
These negative effects can be generally summed up as the quandary of what Zhao calls “high scores but low ability,” or people with strong book knowledge but few abilities that are actually in demand or useful in the labor market. Research has shown that students attaining high scores on the test--particularly the zhuangyans, or the top scorers, in the nation--do not end up being distinguished scholars, business people, or public figures.
Other deleterious effects of a system that revolves around high-stakes standardized testing are the negative impacts on childrens’ psychological and physical well being. Suicide is the top cause of death of children in China, as opposed to accidents in many Western countries, with school-related stress a major factor. Additionally, obesity and other health conditions related to a lack of physical exercise are on the rise. Rampant cheating by students and their parents also underscores how the gaokao has generated not a climate of learning but one of desperate competition.
But perhaps the biggest problem with this testing and parenting culture is how it appears to be stifling creativity. Innovation and creativity flourish when individuals and societies are allowed time and space to generate new ideas that deviate from tradition and play with them--whether they be for new engineering applications or breakthroughs in computer animation. If children are not allowed to play or express their ideas and are supervised by adults who define their success strictly in terms of test scores and admission to prestigious universities, then creativity has little room to grow. And this is becoming a problem throughout East Asia as countries struggle to deal with what they see as a “creativity gap.”
Reforming the Gaokao
Research shows that the Chinese economy is largely based on technology and inventions from other countries, leading it to be considered an “innovation sponge.” With fewer patents granted for original and domestic inventions, the Chinese government has been striving to remedy the situation by becoming not only the world’s largest economy but also an innovation superpower. And one of the government’s key strategies to cultivate the next Silicon Valley and host more Nobel Prize winners in its universities is to reform the gaokao culture.
The government recently announced new rules that would “terminate the practice that a single round of examinations decides the destiny of a student,” de-emphasize the use of scores in college admissions, and broaden the types of skills and disciplines included on the test. Interestingly, the Chinese government also took aim at classroom teaching methods, arguing that innovation is only possible through teaching that is “heuristic, exploratory, discussion-based, and participatory"--in other words, what the contemporary Chinese classroom is not and what many feel is a strength and asset of US education.
Along with a recently announced policy of enacting maker-spaces throughout the country--and for administrators and faculty I met with in Qingdao, a growing embrace of inquiry-based education and curiosity in the liberal arts tradition--it appears that China is bent on emulating much of what makes US education distinctive.
Distinguishing between the positive and negative
But ironically, and in my view, tragically, some of the US educational establishment and parents have begun to emulate the worst of Chinese educational practices: high-stakes testing, academics starting at earlier and earlier grades, and little time for play at school and at home. Besides being fueled by understandable frustrations with the quality of education in many US schools and desiring bright futures for our students, this envious look at East Asia is largely based on the relatively poor performances of US students on international tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS). Because of fear that these bright, hard-working students from China, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan will outcompete US students for jobs and scientific breakthroughs of the future, we are emulating aspects of the “tiger parenting” ethos and Chinese educational system that many Chinese--including the government--are beginning to question and reject. As Yong Zhao says, “What China wants is what America is eager to throw away.”
Consider that many of my translators said that they regretted raising their children like this, and a few said they even despised their own childhoods spent studying under intense pressure from their parents and teachers. Ultimately, however, they feel that they have no choice; otherwise, their child would be outcompeted by a classmate and thus, they must keep up with the endless stream of activities, homework, and pressure.
Of course, there are many positive and enviable aspects of educational systems in East Asia, from the regular teacher lesson study of sessions in Japan (jugyou kenkyuu) to the high expectations and levels of parental involvement evident throughout the region. And as the son of a Japanese father, whose traditional parenting instilled in me a strong work ethic and filial piety, I have long ascribed much of my professional success to the influence of my family.
But it is telling that my translators peppered me with a barrage of questions about how things are done in the US: Do American parents make their children go to night school? How many hours of homework a night did they get, and do I make them do more? Were American kids really allowed to have so much free time?
What lay behind these questions was a recognition that the pressure-laden and over-subscribed approach to parenting and schooling in their culture was ultimately counterproductive and even harmful for their children’s long-term health and happiness, and that despite the many problems with the US system, there was something to how we approach childhood, creativity, and schooling that they and their government yearn for.
Lessons for the United States
And within these concerns about Chinese education voiced by Chinese parents and educators there lay at least three lessons for US educators, policymakers, and parents:
- Don’t obsess over US students’ performances on international tests like PISA and TIMMS. Test scores don’t tell the entire picture of a nation’s intelligence, economic prowess, or their future. Learn from the strengths of other national systems--such as offering decent wages to educators and respecting the teaching profession--but embrace and strengthen our own. Blanket adoption of policies and routines from East Asian (or any other) countries is a recipe for disaster.
- Make sure children have time (at home and school) to play. Play is being increasingly recognized as a vital aspect of cognitive, social, and physical development in young children, and has even been recognized by the United Nations as a right of every child. At home, resist the temptation to over-schedule and over-subscribe children, especially out of fear for his or her academic and professional futures. Give them time to run around the woods, climb trees, and play capture the flag for hours on end.
- Understand that a competitive workforce in the 21st century will exhibit strengths in creativity, problem-solving, and lifelong learning. Around the globe employers are asking for a similar set of competencies in the workforce of the future: technically astute graduates who are also proficient at problem solving, identifying creative solutions, and continually learning new things. Developing such competencies in students will serve them well not only in the labor market, but also in their capacities as citizens of a participatory democracy.
Ultimately, viewing US and China relations through the lens of fear and competition--which is the subtext to hand-wringing about PISA and TIMMS scores and some of the rhetoric surrounding educational reform in the US--reduces these complicated and multi-faceted systems to caricatures of success and failure. As parents, educators and policymakers we certainly have much to learn from other countries and cultures and certainly should not turn a blind eye to the problems within our own systems. But learning to discriminate among the strengths and weaknesses of any nation’s systems and traditions will be invaluable and essential if we truly want to craft learning experiences that will help our students succeed in school, life and work.
Photo of the author observing class at a regional technical college in China, courtesy of the author.
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