With my interest and background in education, my teaching in China placed me in a unique position to do firsthand observation of Chinese education at all levels, which was one of the primary purposes of my original sabbatical request and my subsequent trips there. My wife and I visited a number of elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as several community colleges; in addition, I had the opportunity of teaching at all university grade levels. I came to find out that education has very different, much more deterministic consequences for Chinese students than it does for American students.
Look at it this way. With a population of over 1.3 billion people, China has one-fifth of the world’s population: one in every five people on Earth is Chinese. Further complicating the problems of that massive populace is the distribution of the people. China has roughly the same land mass as the United States. However, a good portion of that area is uninhabitable or sparsely populated: the Gobi Desert is non-arable and the Himalayas and the Himalayan plateau regions have proven to be largely useless; the eastern half of the nation is where the majority of the people are clustered, with a good deal of the population concentrated in and around the large cities located in that part of the country’s land mass. In addition, seventy-five to eighty percent of the people are still agrarian. Such disparate distribution and density of the population certainly makes feeding, housing, caring for, and educating the citizens an ongoing challenge, with education being a key focus.
Every school day in China, over 300 million students study in Chinese classrooms… more than the entire population of America. Indeed, one of my Chinese colleagues once related to me an enlightening analogy. Education in China, he illustrated, can be compared to a wide, packed highway leading to a narrow bridge. The farther along the road one goes, the narrower it gets. Many students get forced out into endless side streets all along the way. And at the end of that crowded road lies a very narrow bridge called “post secondary study.” If one does not cross that bridge, full participation and success in the Chinese economy is extremely limited. And because very few people can ever cross that bridge successfully, entry into post-secondary study is extremely competitive.
All Chinese citizens are guaranteed a basic ninth-grade education and increased literacy in the nation is one of the primary goals of the government. However, given the enormous number of students to be educated, those aims are difficult to achieve. Average class sizes range anywhere from forty to eighty, depending on the specialization of the school, and can number even more if the circumstances demand. The better schools have smaller classes (no more than forty students) so the teacher can do a better job. However, fifty to sixty students is the norm. From kindergarten on, regimentation is the rule of the day. Students are required to listen and take notes. The teacher traditionally has supreme authority and asking questions or commenting on course content in the classroom is considered to be an affront to the teacher and is thus forbidden. Teacher aides, tutors, or parental help in the classroom are unheard of. Rote memorization remains the dominant methodology and students learn early on that silence and copious note taking are the only keys to success. The students themselves spend most of their day in the classroom-usually from eight to ten hours-and the remainder of their time is devoted to homework and any additional tutoring or other supplemental courses that the parents can afford. At all levels of schooling, test results determine the caliber and quality of school the students will be able to attend, so continual study for capstone examinations (national exams at the completion of fourth, sixth, eight, tenth, and twelfth grades) do much in determining the direction and quality of the students’ lives. Some of the college students I talked to admitted that the rigorous demands placed on them by their teachers and parents left them with little or no childhood, a condition they vowed they would never impart on their own children.
The Chinese post-secondary education system is vastly different from the America system. The semesters are twenty-one weeks long. Chinese college students often attend classes Monday through Friday as well as extra classes, tutoring, and/or study sessions on Saturday and Sunday. Entrance into Chinese colleges and universities is quite difficult and is determined by the infamous national Gaokao placement exam. Only about 10 to 20 percent of high school graduates go on to technical colleges or universities and the exam results determine not only which universities they can attend, but also what majors they can study. Once accepted by a university, the students move through their course of studies in cadres of thirty-five to forty. Each cohort takes exactly the same classes and the members share the same, gender separate dormitories, with eight people to a small, confined room. Often their shower and toilet facilities are in a separate building. One of the students from each cohort is appointed to be the class monitor, and he or she becomes tasked with assuring that all classroom and dormitory activities take place with as few problems as possible. To be selected class monitor is indeed an honor. The students within each cohort and dorm room form close bonds and work together for the good of the whole. Interesting enough, most of the students I have talked with say there is little collaborative or interactive learning that goes on in the classroom. The totality of the Chinese education system serves to severely restrict creativity and individuality in students. Just as with the public education system, the college classroom experience involves listening, memorization, and continuous preparation for entrance exams and placements tests. However, the tests college students take are cumulative and will determine the employment they will acquire after graduation, and thus their future quality of life. The competitive nature of the Chinese education system has produced students who, for the most part, are very earnest, obedient, and extremely hardworking, yet who severely lack initiative.