What I Learned in China…


I’ve just returned from my fifth trip to China (14th if you count Hong Kong).

I’ve never really written about these trips before because I’m not sure that comparisons are that helpful, and if you’re going to make them, you need to do a Lucy Crehan and immerse yourself. But people have asked about it, so here are a few things I’ve learned. I’d also say, that if you want to really understand the problems with some of these comparisons, particularly in the form of international comparison tests, read this excellent new book on PISA – The Global Education Race. It’s short, pithy and informative.

Another reason I’ve avoided comparisons, is that for the most part, I work in International Schools, not local schools. International schools use curriculum models that are not local – either IB or British/American/Australian etc curriculum models. But China recently made a change to the rules on international schools. No-one with a Chinese passport can attend one unless they teach the Chinese curriculum. This has led to the development of a spate of bilingual, Chinese curriculum schools to cater for the large numbers of (wealthy) Chinese families who want their children to have a softer, more western pedagogical experience. More on that later.

I guess the first place to start is with the assumption that China is homogenous. Shanghai is the city getting the biggest amount of attention for its education system. In no way is Shanghai typical of China. It’s a cosmopolitan, highly westernised (for China) city, with huge wealth. Many of the poorer workers here migrate from the rural areas, leaving their children behind in rural schools where they often don’t complete primary education. Similarly, Hong Kong, even more westernised, is characterised by wealth, with poorer populations sometimes living in horrendous conditions – including caged housing – in order to send money ‘home’ to children being educated elsewhere. While both HK and Shanghai perform well in international comparison tests, across the country, results are much more patchy. In fact China would be below the UK if the general population were taken into account in these tests.

Chinese children who do stay on well into secondary education, can take the infamous Gaokao university entrance exam. It is demanding and highly competitive. Your ranking position in Gaokao determines your entrance to Higher Education. The exam takes place over two days in which time the students will sit 9 hours of exams. The time spent sitting exams is pretty much the same as with A Level, but compressed. Students take exams in Chinese Literature, Maths and English Language plus they must choose one of either social science/humanities or natural science – so four subjects across nine hours (this varies slightly from province to province and provinces can set their own exams – there is not a national standard). The humanities elements are closely linked to communist history, philosophy and geography, encompassing not just China, but also Russia. The exams are largely in the form of multiple choice and short answer questions with the exception of an essay on the Chinese literature paper, which is notoriously unpredictable. One year the question was:-

Topic: Who do you admire the most? A biotechnology researcher, a welding engineering technician or a photographer?

Biotechnology researcher: Mr. Lee led the company to a globalized market.
Welding engineering technician : Mr. Wang was an ordinary welding engineering technician, and through perseverance, has become a world-renowned craftsman.
Photographer: The photographer posted a collection of his photos to his blog and was well-received online.

9.4 million students sit the Gaokao at the same time – it’s a huge bureaucratic operation, leaving little room for wider subject specialisms or alternatives and some universities will offer only 1 place to every 50,000 applicants. It’s no wonder then that in China, 93% of suicides in young people are linked to exam pressure. In Hong Kong alone, 13 children committed suicide in a two month period last year, leading to a public outcry. But what is rarely mentioned is that not every child sits the Gaokao. Some choose vocational routes. Some simply attend foreign schools to bypass the system and universities abroad don’t ask for the Gaokao so there are ways of attending HE – if you have money – without taking the exam. Many children, especially those from poorer or rural families don’t pass the entrance exams into secondary school at all and leave after primary education. So it’s a fallacy that Chinese children are ‘better’ than those elsewhere. And I haven’t even mentioned the huge sums spent on private tuition or the extremely long hours spent in study.

But what of the teaching? While I was there, I was happy to meet Simon Zao, the Chinese Maths teacher who entered the dragon’s den when he volunteered to take part in the BBC documentary “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?” A genuinely kind and self effacing man, he offered an interesting comparison of Chinese and English Maths education. One of the things he pointed out immediately was that in China, teachers were expected to teach only 10×40 minute sessions per week – i.e. 80 minutes per day. They spend the rest of the day marking, planning and meeting students to give one to one feedback. They spend very little time on inputting data for tracking or reporting – feedback is the main focus. He stressed that contrary to popular opinion in Britain, Chinese teachers placed great emphasis on relationships with the pupils – not so much in the classroom, but elsewhere – especially when offering academic advice.

But what he felt was missing, was an opportunity for students to express themselves and think more laterally or creatively. This was something he had taken away from the UK. In addition, he noted that while China has a reputation for excellence in Maths, their curriculum had a narrower focus than that in England. English mathematics, he noted, consists of pure, mechanical and statistical maths with a greater emphasis on geometry than China. In China, there was more depth but into less of a spread of content – this left more time for work such as calculus. Most of the focus was on Pure Mathematics with an expectation that children would learn formula by rote so that they could focus on making connections between concepts and ideas. “The how and why matter to us.”

Chinese teachers are allocated a ‘master’ teacher on arrival in a new school. This person acts as a long term mentor to the teacher – co-planning, supporting and training for several years. They will offer demonstration lessons and train the teacher to also create demonstration lessons. While Simon saw great value in this, he also pointed out that demonstration lessons leave too little room for responding to student’s questions. Everyone must keep up. There is no differentiation or scope for dealing with children with additional needs. They may seek some extra feedback from the teacher, but if this doesn’t work, they simply fall behind or out. He pointed out that special needs provision in China was poor but improving, but there was still an assumption that those who couldn’t keep up needed to go elsewhere.

He also discussed with me over lunch the preconceptions that he felt people had of Chinese education. “People think we don’t care about other things,” he said, “but we do wider things than you see.” He mentioned arts, exercise and activity and the need to develop a whole person but he felt that in time, the pressure to pass the Gaokao took over and led to a narrowing of experience from the age of 15.

It was a fascinating experience for me – to see the IB with its focus on global communication and understanding, sitting in direct comparison with the Chinese system and finding some connective strands too. But if I take anything at all away, it’s a warning. A warning not to attempt to separate an education system from its culture, to look beyond headlines and cherries to what lies beneath and to beware the refrain “we need to be more like Shanghai!” It also left me with a renewed determination for us to find a system that works best for us, for our children (all of them) and to not fall into the trap of thinking that the grass is not only greener on the other side, but that all the people eating it, are after ours too. The notion of competing leads us to a fearful state of affairs and it skews our view of the rest of the world. The Chinese are clear that there is much to be learned from us. We should all enter into this process of learning in a spirit of collaboration, not of competition.

4 thoughts on “What I Learned in China…

  1. 2 years ago a Chinese MA student asked me why the British were so obsessed with the Chinese education system. She said that in China she had come to believe that her professors were always right and could not be questioned before going on to say she had learned from her experience studying in London that she was entitled to have an opoonion and that she could debate with her teachers. She told the group that she thought our way was better because it taught her how to think for herself and that the Chinese system just led to compliance.
    I suspect that it is this latter point that makes the Chinese system so attractive. They simply don’t want most of us to think for ourselves but to merely do what we are told.

  2. As a beginning teacher, your post was food for thought for me. I teach at Nanchang University which is by no means in the top tier, and while I have incredible freedom I also often find myself butting heads with the system and picking up the pieces of students whose identities were destroyed by the examination culture. I particularly like your conclusion, as I have a tendency to view my own educational history with rose-tinted glasses.

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