Nine-hour tests and lots of pressure: welcome to the Chinese school system
The streets surrounding Shijia primary school in Beijing were mobbed by a crowd of parents so dense that cars were obliged to beat a retreat.
At 3.45pm on Friday, 11-year-old Zou Tingting, five minutes late, bounded through the school’s west gate and into her waiting mother’s arms. Tingting’s classes were over, but her day was just beginning – she had an hour of homework, plus lessons in ping pong, swimming, art, calligraphy and piano.
Tingting’s mother, Huang Chunhua, said that, like many Chinese mothers, she once considered Tingting’s academic performance her top priority; now she realises the importance of a well-rounded education. “I’ve seen British curricular materials, and I’m actually kind of jealous,” she said. “British teachers guide students to discover things on their own – they don’t just feed them the answers, like in China.”
In recent weeks British parents and educators have been in a panic about the discrepancy between the Chinese education system and the UK’s. In December the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the 2012 results for its triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test – a reading, maths and science examination administered to half a million 15-year-olds in 65 countries. Shanghai students topped the rankings; the UK ranked 26th.
Next week education minister Elizabeth Truss will lead a “fact-finding mission” to Shanghai to learn the secrets of China’s success. She plans to adjust the UK’s education policy accordingly.
Yet Chinese parents and educators see their own system as corrupt, dehumanising, pressurised and unfair. In fact, many are looking to the west for answers. Huang said that some parents bribe Shijia primary school to admit their children (though she declined to say whether she had done so herself).
Tingting attends an expensive cramming school at weekends, leaving her tired. She will probably have to abandon extracurricular activities in high school to devote more time to the college admission exam, called thegaokao. Many parents consider the gruelling nine-hour test a sorting mechanism that will determine the trajectory of their children’s lives.
Chinese experts are also less impressed than Truss by the Pisa scores. “Even though Shanghai students scored well on the test, this doesn’t mean that Shanghai’s education system doesn’t have any problems,” said Lao Kaisheng, a professor in the education department of Beijing Normal University. “In fact, it’s the opposite.”
As long as China’s education system remains vast but resource-constrained, Lao added, its schools will default to testing as a reliable indicator of competence. “The education system here puts a heavy emphasis on rote memorisation, which is great for students’ test-taking ability but not for their problem-solving and leadership abilities or their interpersonal skills,” he said. “Chinese schools just ignore these things.”
Read full article: The Guardian