Lens on China: Notes on the state of Education

Chinese school
Sports Day- getting ready to race

This is the sixth article in the Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich.

I wake with a start at 7:00 AM to the sound of the Chinese National Anthem through my window. Somehow its melodies seem too grand for a daily occurrence. Nevertheless, it plays faithfully over the school’s loudspeakers every morning; waking me like some patriot’s alarm clock. I lay in my bed, motivating my body to move while the children of Liewu Public Middle School stand to attention on the other side of the thin wall that separates my apartment building from the school courtyard. Some of the children have already been at school for over an hour cramming for exams or finishing homework but at 7:00 AM, in rain, cold or oppressive heat they assemble in dutiful formation outside while the anthem plays and the head teacher gives a speech over a scratchy loudspeaker on loyalty and devotion to the school, the party and to China. At 8:00, I make the quick walk up the alley to the entrance of the concrete school building where two students greet me with an arm-raise salute and a shout of “Laoshi, hao!” (“Good morning, teacher!”)

Chinese school
Morning assembly

This is public school in China. It is discipline and duty, stress and hardship. Students are even required to participate in a two week drilling program with the military once a year. It has succeeded in its mission to control and organize enormous groups of children (there were 1,700 7th and 8th graders on my campus alone) but in its primary goal, to efficiently educate its young people, it is constantly struggling.

I was hired as an oral English instructor which means my job was not to teach English per se but rather to facilitate English speaking practice in the classroom using vocabulary the kids had already learned. China is certainly ahead of the curve in terms of English education. The government realized the importance of equipping their citizens with global language tools and English has been one of the three core subjects of the college entrance exams (along with Chinese and Math) since 2001. Imagine my surprise when I asked the kids to take out paper on the first day and was met with a sea of blank stares. “Paper,” I would repeat slowly and clearly. “Paper?” How could these kids have studied English for five years with so little to show for it?  English may be a core requirement but is taught as a subject to be tested rather than a form of communication to master. In fact, there is no oral component to the curriculum at all. As a result, most students can only read and write (if that). This means while kids might know the word “house” they wouldn't recognize it if I said it, only if I wrote it or drew a picture.

Chinese students
The curriculum might not allow for a lot of creativity but these kids do get to decorate their own hallways once a month!

I came prepared to teach English the way in which I had always learned foreign languages- with simulated conversations, games, group activities and debates. This couldn’t be further from the method with which my Chinese students were familiar. In general the Chinese school system sports an archaic focus on rote memorization and imitation that was lost in the West somewhere between my grandparents’ generation and my own. The school during class hours is eerily silent as children sit silently scribbling away while stony-faced teachers lecture from behind their podiums. From English rooms float the occasional monotone sounds of dozens of children chanting in unison, “chair, chair, chair; table, table, table.”

Chinese students

Due to the low levels of oral English amongst the Chinese teachers (most street vendors in tourist hot spots have a better grasp on conversational English), all English lessons are conducted in Chinese. Endless recitations of English words followed by page after page of copied sentences have given students years of English with almost no contextual usability. Many of mine had an extensive memorized vocabulary but could not construct a sentence outside of the ones they had learned.

As a product of Western education methods where group work and teacher-student interaction are the hallmarks of a good classroom, it was difficult for me to acknowledge the value of this kind of instruction. Creativity is stifled in a world of tests with correct and incorrect answers. One more progressive teacher even complained to me about her young son’s art teacher reprimanding him for painting a picture of a sky incorrectly. Apparently he, in his young ignorance, was not aware that stars are never purple but always 5-pointed and yellow.

Despite all of this, I marveled at the order Chinese teachers were able to keep in their classrooms. Class sizes vary from 50-70 children; all of whom know that the punishment for speaking out of turn or acting out could mean a tug on the ear, having to stand for the entire period or a slap with the yardstick. Being a soft Westerner I did not intend to employ any such brutal methods of humiliation and luckily at first I enjoyed the luxury of being a fascinating foreigner who could naturally captivate and enthrall her students. They asked for my autograph, took pictures, sat quietly and listened intently. After the first month, however, I watched in desperation as my once well-behaved classes descended into mayhem. Without an assistant to translate directions I lost the attention of students in the back of these huge rooms. The social need to "save face" kept most students from volunteering either because their English was poor or because their English was advanced and they didn't want to appear boastful. 

Chinese school
An energetic bunch

But the greatest hurdle by far were the enormous class sizes and limited space. With 50+ children per class, desks were packed from wall to wall- an environment not exactly conducive to small group discussion. I never could understand why the classrooms had been made so small for such large classes. In my biggest class of 72, some kids were even sharing desks (sharing as in: two bums, one seat). I was baffled. This would be somewhat understandable if I was at some underfunded country school but I wasn’t. I was working for the 4th ranked middle school in one of China’s fastest developing metropolises. Couldn’t they afford enough desks for their students?

Chinese school
Touring our school's flashy museum and awards building

The root of this money distribution problem, I discovered, was that familiar plague of Chinese institutions: corruption. Principals of Chinese schools are businessmen. They are party members with little or no experience in education and venerated by the staff- all of whom constantly seek his good graces (it was quite amusing to watch one of the P.E. teachers, a particularly talented badminton sportsman, mysteriously miss every shot one day when the principal joined our afterschool pickup game).

So here’s how a common money scam works in education: the principal applies for money from the district board and spends half of it on some glamorous project (such as our new Star Trek-esque teacher’s lounge) that costs a fraction of the allotted funds. He shows off to the board the fruits of their investment and quietly pockets the surplus leaving us with fewer desks than students but a great space for teacher tea meetings (This problem came to light in a serious way when brand new school buildings tumbled down like houses of cards during the 2008 earthquake).

In 2010 the government launched their latest 10-year educational reform plan. Among its goals are cracking down on corruption, the eventual loosening of state control on schools and increasing the emphasis on creativity and individual thought in curricula. There is a growing understanding of the need to nourish creativity early on for China’s future generations to contribute original material in their fields. As it stands there are no real regulations on copying or plagiarism even at the university level and students are not assessed on their ability to produce original work.

Chinese school
Liewu campus during lunchtime

Unfortunately, the 2010 reforms have had little impact on changing the traditional Chinese teaching methods so far. This is in large part due to the domination of the Gaokao (Higher Educational Entrance Exam) and other state exams. The school budgets, teachers’ careers and futures of students all depend directly on the results so the curriculum centers almost completely on test content. These tests put both teachers and students in a stranglehold. Many Chinese teachers I spoke with recognized the importance of learning to speak English but were restrained by the sheer amount of reading and writing that is covered in the national exams. They said they would love to do more interactive learning and speaking practice but since the exams do not cover oral English most parents and administrators would consider it a waste of time.

Chinese school

Chinese students are also under intense pressure. Their performance will determine which university they will attend and how much money they will make in the future. In high school, students arrive around 6:00 AM and can stay as late as 9:00 PM studying or in evening classes. Most students also take Saturday classes in subjects with which they struggle. Their lecture style classes are supplemented with unfathomable amounts of busy work including practice tests and memorization activities.

Schools also use competition to boost performance. All students know their rank in their class in every subject and feel enormous pressures to raise their rank so even those students who expressed a desire to practice their English struggled to find the time. One student of mine in particular, Gab, was desperate to speak English with me. We went on Fridays to an English Corner conversation group at the local university and over the course of the school year she improved dramatically.  Unfortunately, test taking was not her strong suit and she ranked low in most of her subjects. So even though by the end of the year her speaking skills were far beyond any of my other students, in a system that favors test-takers and memorization, she was never rewarded academically for her success.

Meeting in Chengdu
Meeting in Chengdu
Foreign and Chinese teachers at the conference looking very bundled up in our non-heated building!

About five months into my teaching contract I received an invitation to an event put on by the educational board of our district (Chenghua) for all of their foreign teachers. The invitation promised an opportunity for us to share our experiences so far with “living, teaching and integrating” in Chengdu. To me, it seemed like the perfect time for all of us to give some real feedback about the issues we had faced in the oral English education system. The meeting was in the typical Chinese style with a circular table of executives at the front of the room who took turns giving lengthy and rather fluffy speeches on the importance of education, sharing Western teaching methods and 

our foreign cultures. Halfway through the fourth speech one foreign teacher finally raised his hand and interjected. “Excuse me,” he said, “but we can’t hold our students’ attention for more than 10 minutes. Our classes need to be graded if students are going to care about English.” There were murmurings of agreement amongst all of us and soon we were in a full-blown discussion on the need for grades, teaching assistants and reduced class sizes. From the expressions of shock and horror on the officials’ faces and their multiple attempts to restore order it soon became apparent that the purpose of this event was not to hear our opinions but for top school officials to watch us spout the usual praise of Chinese food, culture and how much we loved teaching here. I understand better now the importance of dancing about with social niceties when making suggestions to superiors in China so that they do not “lose face.” Through our clumsy interruption of their highly bureaucratic meeting, we embarrassed our schools and were perceived as arrogant; but through their resistence to hear our suggestions it was also clear that we had not been hired to make changes or rock the boat (or, arguably, even to teach). We represented an expensive but highly marketable investment by the district to expose their students to a Westerner and convince parents their children were now going to be English geniuses whether or not we could realize that goal.

Even with the new 10-year plan the changes in Chinese education will have to come from the adoption of a new way of thinking starting with the transformation of the idea of education from simply equipping students with the skills to answer the most questions correctly that will land them the most affluent job down the line to appreciating the value of the knowledge itself. Today, it is a system that promotes conformity through its focus on memorization and perfect imitation and in its search for weeding out the “wrong” and doing everything “right,” creativity is its casualty. And it will be China’s downfall if they do not begin to take the risks of allowing students to think for themselves.

Lauren is a 2011 International Studies graduate of the University of Iowa and spent the last year living and working as an English teacher in Chengdu, China.

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