Straying from the Path: Breaking Away from China’s Rigid Educational System

“Straying from the Path” 有三个部分。在第一个部分里,通过采访了北师大二附中的老师和学生,我们了解了中国的高中生活。我们也去看两节不同的课。在第二个部分里,我们要介绍一下中国高中学生去美国留学的目的和生活。我们采访了两个中国留学生,他们谈了自己的故事和对中国教育制度的看法。在第三个部分里,我们要介绍一下中国的国际学校或者民办学校的特点。我们采访了两个有孩子上国际学校的家长,而且研究了一个跟民办学校有关系的政策。如果你要进一步了解我们的研究,请关注我们的博客。

I. Education, Memorization, and Innovation in a Chinese High School

American leaders tend to regard China’s education system as an enigmatic success story, both laudable and threatening to American dominance. For decades, educators and policy-makers alike took China’s high scores on international examinations as an example of educational superiority, and devised plans to raise American test scores to a similar level. China was seen by experts as a clear leader in the scholastic field.

Lately, though, Western media has focused on less commendable aspects of the Chinese school system, like the signature emphasis on rote memorization. Although high test scores are praised, the Chinese education system is criticized for failing to encourage creativity and innovation. Perspectives presented remain mixed and sometimes contradictory, and first-hand reports are few and far between. What was really going on? As American students living in China, we felt that we were uniquely poised to observe the genuine Chinese high-school experience.

Our first step was to sit in on a class that was in some ways emblematic of the traditional Chinese teaching style. When we entered Ms. Yin’s literature class at Beishida Erfuzhong, a prestigious and progressive Beijing high school, we saw what we expected to see — — to an extent. Although Ms. Yin stood at the front of the classroom lecturing for the majority of the period, she also made time for students to analyze text independently or in small groups. This less rigid approach seemed to contradict the prevailing stereotype of Chinese teachers as dry, humorless lecturers.

Students listening intently as Ms. Yin lectures

Ms. Yin believed her more interactive approach was made possible in part by certain educational reforms in China, which grant public school teachers more control over lesson planning. Thus, instead of being forced to simply lecture, Ms. Yin had the freedom to arrange group activities and better foster creativity amongst her students.

To better understand the more innovative classes perhaps made possible by these nebulous reforms, we visited a robotics elective introduced by Erfuzhong in 2013. As we entered the robotics area (which consisted of three separate classrooms plus a small display hall) the contrast between this part of the building and others was immediately apparent; the robotics classrooms were white and airy, boasting futuristic ceiling designs and a line of 3-D printers, while the literature classroom we visited earlier was drab, with endless rows of desks and a podium for the teacher. In this environment, so clearly designed with innovation in mind, we watched small groups of students work together to build a robot, while their teacher, Mr. Bei, moved around and advised them.

Mr. Bei advising a group of students on the building of a robot

When asked about the benefits of taking his course, Mr. Bei discussed the importance of individualism even in a group situation, saying that the students “must learn to clearly express their individual thought processes and opinions.” However, he went on to focus on the lessons of teamwork learned in robotics, emphasizing that “to build robots, one person certainly cannot make one alone. One person alone is hopeless. The students are required to work together.” In this distinctly modern Chinese class, the emphasis is not placed on accumulation of knowledge or memorization, but instead on character development, innovation, and creativity. -Hannah

A closer look at classes at Erfuzhong

II. A Chinese Student Abroad

Although Chinese high schools are indeed moving towards a more progressive and well-rounded system, many young students have still elected to study abroad rather than wait for the Chinese education system to catch up.

Aside from the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students attending American universities, thousands of high school and even middle school students are flocking to the U.S. in search of a better education. One such student, Zhu Manqing, made her way to a boarding school in Connecticut as an eighth grader. Taking on a new name, ‘Maggie’, she had to learn to navigate an entirely foreign education system. Five years and two schools later, we talked to Maggie in hopes that she could add a unique perspective to our report.

Maggie in an English classroom at her American school

Over the course of our conversation with Maggie, it quickly became apparent that American schools and Chinese schools are very different. First, the fundamental goals of the two systems don’t always align. Generally speaking, Chinese schools foster a deeper understanding of class material while American schools push for character and personality growth. In addition, according to Maggie’s experience, the Chinese curriculum is more global than that of the United States: “In China, we read international literature — Russian and soviet novels, European literature, African literature — in addition to Chinese literature. U.S. schools are far more… American-centric.” Perhaps there is a correlation between Chinese schools’ emphasis on intercultural understanding and Chinese students’ tendency to study abroad. The root of their restlessness, though, may just come from dissatisfaction with China’s public education.

Maggie’s American school, Berkshire School

Though there are many factors that are driving students to study abroad, college admissions is one of the most important. As Maggie pointed out to me, the U.S. has maybe 100 top universities, while China is home to only about 10. Add this to the fact that China’s population exceeds America’s by threefold, and you’ve got incredibly fierce competition for a limited number of spots. Extremely qualified Chinese students still may not make the cut into the nation’s best schools. With hard work, a little luck, and a lot of money, however, these students have another option: America. Many families choose to send their children to the States in high school so that they can perfect their English and adjust to American education and culture before applying to college.

Studying abroad naturally has a few unforeseen benefits. For one thing, it opens up a lot of job opportunities: “Being in the States looks really good on your résumé if you want to get a job back in China”, Maggie claimed. In addition, the experience of studying abroad, as those of us from SYA already know, is a rewarding one in and of itself. “We’re learning how to live on our own and conduct ourselves in a foreign environment,” Maggie explained, “which develops you so much as a person. I think that’s why Chinese students studying in the U.S. are often so successful.” It’s clear that studying abroad allows Chinese kids to learn life skills they could never get from a textbook or a test. The adaptability, creative thinking, and independence taught in American schools is obviously appealing to Chinese families, who are hoping to better ready their children for the real world. In Maggie’s words,“Wealthy middle class families are sending their kids to the U.S. because they’re beginning to see problems with the Chinese education system. Making kids into professional test takers doesn’t really prepare them for life.” -Riley

A conversation with two Chinese students attending American high schools

III. Regulating Private Education

Chinese parents begin spending between 60,000 yuan to 260,000 yuan ($8,850 to $38,350) on one of the 530 private schools located in China as soon as their child enters the first grade in order to give them a taste of the coveted Western education. The parents must decide at such an early age due to the drastically divergent curriculums of the Chinese educational system and the Western educational system. According to Shi Hongyu, a parent whose child is attending an international school, “public schools focus more on performance, and the ability to grasp knowledge,” while, “international schools pay attention to the child’s physical and mental development, they also place importance on meeting the standard knowledge for the age group, but at the same time they are concerned about the application of the student’s knowledge.” Since the focus of both systems diverge, their curriculums starting in primary school must also diverge. Parents are then left with the difficult decision of whether or not to send their children to private schools. This choice decides their child’s future and is extremely difficult to change.

A Beijing international school

Recently, a rise in the number of students attending private institutions for both primary and high school, as well as attending colleges abroad, has created government concern. Government officials believe that this trend of students seeking foreign education could be a limiting factor for the country’s development, and it could undermine the public educational system. Thus, the Chinese Department of Education passed a law that limits the actions of private institutions. The new law, the Private Education Facilitation Law, enacts the following: new private institutions cannot be established without government approval, all for-profit institutions must pay government taxes, primary private schools must be non-profit, and all primary private schools must change their curriculum to follow the government approved curriculum.

Young Chinese students at an international school

This change has caused much uncertainty amongst parents who send their children to private schools. If the government forces these schools to correspond with the Chinese curriculum, then the parents will simply end up paying tuition for a Chinese public school education in an institution promising Western curriculum. This could potentially disrupt their plans for their children, since it will be harder for a child growing up with the Chinese curriculum to transition to a western curriculum. In the end, this would make it harder for them to attend Western universities. It seems that the government has intentionally made gaining a private education difficult in an attempt to railroad families into sticking with the public education system.

Shi Hongyu also believes that this law may have the opposite effect than originally intended. She believes that if the change to the private school curriculum is large, then this may “lead to more children going abroad earlier, for example, junior high school”. This could result in an even greater rise in Chinese students studying abroad, contrary to the Chinese government's intentions.