China’s Education System: An Insider’s Look

Ancient Chinese culture speaks to the works of the academic philosopher Confucius, who preached the importance of education to the Chinese way of life.  From his initial teachings, the Chinese have produced what is considered to be a thriving and effective education system. There have been exposés about the intensity and vigorousness of the system that seem to indicate an even brighter future for the Chinese people.  This prosperous future derived from their education system has been measured in terms of technological, economical, and military advance.  From witnessing this alleged strict system after having taught in it as an English teacher for two months, I have concluded my stay with several lingering questions.  First: how effective is the current Chinese education system as compared with that of the western academic model?  Second: How do the Chinese feel about the system in which they study?  Third: In a political, economic, and cultural sense, how will the intensity of the system contribute or take away from China’s growth as a world power in these areas?

Image courtesy of Rivard, © 2005, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Rivard, © 2005, some rights reserved.

As previously mentioned, I am currently concluding a two month teaching stint in the Guangxi province of China, focusing on improving the students’ (age 14-18) English aural and oral capabilities.  Throughout the course of the past sixty days, I have found much to criticize and praise about the Chinese educational model I have been working with.  It is easy to appreciate the time and effort that students put into their studies. In this case, having class from 8:00-22:00 with a slight break in between is a numerical testament to how hard these students work.  However, there is definitely a question as to whether the students could learn in more effective ways and in turn, shorten their school day.  In interviewing a local student, he said that at times, he believes that there is too much focus on how long students study rather than the actual material that they study in that given time.  On the other hand, students have noted that they appreciate the discipline.  In pouring through the English textbooks in order to establish a set curriculum, I have determined it to contain topics that do not necessarily help one learn English but rather encourage the children to repeat phrases and dialogues.  Before each class, one student stands before the room and recites a two-person dialogue in a mumbling undistinguishable voice.  In this sense, the way in which this Chinese high school learns English very much mirrors the American linguistic approach of the 1970s, which focused on memorizing phrases rather than learning individual words and vocabulary.  In asking students what they thought the main differences were between Western secondary schools and the Chinese ones, they generally responded that Chinese schools are better and the students are more serious.  However, in comparing the Chinese system objectively with that of the West, there are several elements of a student’s character and capabilities that the Chinese education system does not bring out.  In some sense there is so much emphasis on quantitative learning in terms of getting the most amounts of things done in the shortest amount of time possible that creativity and room for opinion is lacking.  Debate, dialogue and exchanges with foreign nations could be negatively affected by this approach.

The second thread of questions that arises from my time teaching in a Chinese school concerns what the Chinese students think of their system on its own rather than comparing it to that of the West. It is in this way that I found that in some sense, the students answered my questions as a group rather than individually.  For instance, when I asked them if they liked basketball, there was a chorus of “yes” throughout the room.  Especially in the classes of eighteen year olds where their English is certainly fluent enough to express opinions, they struggled immensely with this task.  In interviewing a local who speaks fluent English, she stated that stereotypically, Chinese citizens will agree with whatever opinion seems to serve them best in the future.  In a political sense, the aforementioned local stated that many Chinese will join the Communist party not because they necessarily agree with the ideology, but because they believe it will help them later on in their careers.  It is therefore my opinion that the Chinese will, in some cases, make certain choices in life (such as joining the communist party) because just as they choose to express the popular opinion in their class rooms, they choose to in their life.

In looking to how foreign affairs could be affected by this, it seems that China’s approach to solving problems significantly varies from that of the West, as evidenced in issues being discussed currently.  Without argument, international politics are derived from the fact that there are different opinions on the world stage.  Something highly interesting about the evolution of the education system in China is that it is paralleled with the rise of the capitalist market.  Politically, the curriculum of the secondary schools in China is such that English is in fact highlighted as a major subject.  Part of the main university entrance exam in China is an English exam which is considered to be of upmost importance to pass.  In this sense, it suggests that the Chinese are becoming more open to facilitating a dialogue and taking more initiative to attempt to understand the Western lifestyle as evidenced by the Western holidays and cultural activities described in their textbooks.  As mentioned in the introductory remarks, the stereotypical lack of varying opinions that occurs in the classroom could also have implications on the political front.  In some ways, it could be the case that since there are such similar opinions within the communist party itself, the transfer of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping was without any conflict whatsoever.  This idea does pave the way for more peaceful transitions of power but it does bring up the idea of how genuinely the politicians feel towards their stated beliefs or whether they just comply with what their party tells them to believe.  This previous thought parallels the school systems strict nature of attempting to create a unified single thought process.  The current leaders in China were privy to the new educational processes which speak directly to their increased cooperation with the Western world and it is the hope both in the eyes of the students at the school as well as the foreign teachers there that this increasingly fruitful relationship will continue.