Educating the Dragon – Part Two

Studying hard in China

The Education System in China is considered one of the main caterpillars for China’s economic growth. In Part Two of “Educating the Dragon: The Education System in China“, Benjamin Stecher examines whether China can really outperform the rest of the world by using its education system? Can disciplined, educated youth really lead China in the 21st century?

“We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

My years spent teachings in East Asia have proved to me that the stereotypes we in the west have of East-Asian education in general, and of the education system in China in particular, are mostly true. Most students, as soon as they are mature enough, spend the vast majority of their lives at a desk with a pencil in hand and a list of facts, sentences, words or equations to memorize and apply again and again. They are over-stressed and over-worked, yet this is the reality of the education system they live in. The vast majority are never able to live up to the expectations thrust upon them by the incessant jeering from their parents, teachers, and even peers.

While writing this article, I am in the middle of a two week, long and intensive SAT prep class for 10th graders; a class taking place during the Chinese New Year. The parents of these students have no problem with their children spending the entirety of the most solemn holiday on the Chinese calendar, and the only vacation many of them have, stuck in a classroom for 8 hours a day preparing for a test they will not have to take for another two years.

What might be most striking to their western counterparts is the students’ compliance, their complete and utter willingness to go along with this program. They firmly believe this test to be the means by which they will be propelled up the rungs of society. They see the hours spent memorizing new vocabulary and developing their reading ability as a liberating force that will ensure them a good life.

The highly competitive nature of the education systems in China and in Asia produces some extraordinary minds. I dissected excerpts from Thomas Friedman and Booker T. Washington with a seven year old girl, for whom English was her fourth language. I worked with a 14 year old high school student, who was preparing for entry into the starry-eyed world of the ivy league and who was routinely scoring over 2300 on his mock SAT tests. There is definitely something to admire about an education system that actually succeeds at getting everyone to buy into the value of education.

The Cost of the Education System in China Is Too Heavy for Chinese Youth

Despite such success, however, the education system currently in place in China is creating kids who are great test takers but have no social skills and are unable to apply what they are learning beyond the classroom. They enter the workforce primed to pass the resume test but unable to get through a single interview. I have spoken with a number of recruiters here, all seem to have the same complaint. They are handed with impressive CVs but end up sitting down with a sweaty nervous wreck who spits out memorized answers to every question.

There is another impediment to the education system in China that has yet to be thoroughly examined. The rote learning required in the early years of education to attain literacy in Chinese seems to affect the way Chinese students approach learning and studying for the remainder of their formal education. The only way to become proficient in reading and writing Chinese is to sit down for hours a day with a list of characters and copy them again and again until they are imprinted in the mind. These years of learning seem to have cut lines ostensibly into the students brains. A branch of neuroscience, while still years away from producing anything conclusive, has begun demonstrating that the early years of education, particularly those spent in remedial language learning, are when the synapses and neural pathways first get locked in place. These connections make up the graphing upon which messages in the brain will henceforth be sent. Spending years at a desk copying and memorizing seems to create minds ideal for learning systems but with a hindered ability to ever create a system of their own.

Nevertheless, we must remember that the education system in China is still in its infancy. Only forty years ago teachers and professors across the country were still being branded as ‘elitists’ and were forced to relocate to the country side for re-education programs. These teachers and professors have done an admirable job implementing standardized education for 1.3 billion people. But there is still a lot of work to be done if the education system in China is going to give birth to the type of minds that will continue propelling this country, along with its corporations and institutions, through the generations to come.

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About the Author

Benjamin has been teaching and studying in East-Asia for much of the last five years. Born in Kenya but raised in Canada, Benjamin now lives in Shanghai where he has been working and studying since the summer of 2010.