China’s education system gets a lot of flak from afar. But what’s it actually like up close and in reality? A foreign English teacher shares her experiences and views of teaching in China.
A class of 40 pre-teens stand to attention, chins up, eyes straight ahead, hands by their sides as they recite an English passage from memory. This was how every day started at an English-language summer camp I once worked at in one of China's largest cities. The students were enrolled in an intensive 10 days of English lessons, starting at 7am and ending around 8:30pm. Their days were made up of the rote memorization of inspirational (and often nationalistic) English quotes, oral and writing tests and the proper elocution of English passages.
This didn’t seem like anything close to a fun summer to me. At the end of the 10-day camp, however, I was surprised when many kids wept with grief as they were pulled apart from their new friends to return to their far-flung home towns. Over the course of 10 days, throughout the endless hours of studying, memorization, practice and testing, they had somehow found time to make friends.
But education in China is not supposed to be fun. Western watchers often consider Chinese educational methods, such as rote memorization and the intensive focus on hard sciences and mathematics, too strict, inflexible and pressured. Class time and study time are indeed less of a priority in the U.S., where students are also more involved in extra-curricular activities, such as sports.
However, China’s adult literacy rate was reported by the UN to be at 96.98% in 2018, compared to just 79% for adults in the US in 2019 (as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics). So the Chinese must be doing some things right. Right?
Let’s take a closer look at the successes and shortcomings of the Chinese educational system.
From the installation of national examinations in 1977, to the recognition of 'special education needs' in 1985, to the development of world-class higher education in 1998, the Chinese government has proved itself to be very serious about education. China has tried to strike a balance between normal secondary education for the academically gifted and vocational training for the less so in a bid to provide a balanced economy, allowing for re-urbanization and modern industrialization. All in all, it has done remarkably well.
The current state
The Chinese government has been keen to ensure both the economy and the population benefit from education and its ensuing opportunities. China spent 4.2% of its GDP on education in 2020, which is comparable to expenditure in the UK and the US. Under today's laws, mandatory education for primary and middle school is free in China, although parents must generally pay nominal fees for books and uniforms. Even those in remote villages have access to education.
It’s no secret that education, and the strict discipline that comes with it, is now a prized facet of Chinese culture. School is mandatory from grades 1-9, with a 91.4% attendance rate for secondary schools in 2021. The ministry of education has estimated there are more than 200 million elementary and high school students in China, equating to 1/6 of the population. That is one weighty student body!
China’s higher education enrollment rate hit 57.8% in 2021, compared to just 30% in 2012, according to the Ministry of Education. In 2020, a record high of around eight million students graduated from undergraduate courses. Although graduates are currently facing a high rate of youth unemployment, China nevertheless continues to improve its place in the worlds of business, finance and technology by means of educating its population.
Even the youngest children in Chinese primary schools are in class for more than eight hours each day, studying a rigorous curriculum that is 60% math and Mandarin. A strict diet of sugarcoated politics and "moral training" cannot be forgotten, as well as lessons in love for the motherland, love for the party and love for other Chinese people. English lessons, which are now also an important part of Chinese education, begin from grade 3. Meanwhile, humanities, arts, sports and the like all suffer as a result.
Once the relatively easy days of primary school are over, cramming for tests becomes the most emphasized facet of Chinese education. Students are required to pass tests to exit out of each grade in middle school. If they don’t pass on the first try, they’re allowed to test again, but repeated failures can spell an early end to a child's education.
At the end of all this, the zhongkao examination determines which high school a student may attend. Admission to high schools in China is similar to admission to university in the West. There are top-tier high schools in every city that only the best of the best can attend.
Once in high school, a student will spend the next three years preparing for the gaokao, a notoriously hard test overseen by the Ministry of Education. Held every June over 2-3 days, the gaokao determines which universities a student can attend. Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language (usually English) are the main testing subjects, although six other supplementary subjects in science and humanities are also tested.
Until very recently, the gaokao was the only criteria for attending higher education in China; an entire educational career summed up by one big test. As a very good score means an applicant can attend the university of his or her choosing, students in their last year of high school spend most of their waking hours studying for the exam. Many forego all extracurricular activities, friendship, sleep and overall mental health in favor of studying, and, for the most part, their teachers and parents are all for it.
The Chinese method
China’s teaching and testing methods are a bit of a touchy subject as they stand in such stark contrast to Western society's more laissez-faire approach to education. In the U.S., for example, kids are in class for seven hours a day, at most. Liberal arts education, meaning history, social sciences, literature, and PE, are given just as much time as math, English and hard sciences. Besides from testing, course work also makes up a large part of a student’s final grade.
To Western eyes, therefore, China’s do-well-or-be-damned mentality of testing may seem extreme. As a direct result of the zhongkao and gaokao, most schools and parents place a lot of emphasis on testing abilities, and, as is commonly argued by foreign teachers and Western university administrators, not enough on innovation and creativity. But, this isn’t a problem that only plagues China. Plenty of outdated and controversial standardized testing occurs in Western countries, for example the 'No Child Left Behind' policy in the US.
Chinese parents, educators and students are not completely ignorant to the problems within their system. Young students I’ve taught complain about the endless rote memorization techniques, while older students have expressed their desire for a more creative curriculum that could make them more competitive in the wider world. I've even heard from fellow expat English teachers that some students seek them out after class to discuss issues of stress and anxiety — topics they dare not raise with their Chinese teachers.
The good news is that the late 2000s saw even more reform of China’s education system. In 2007, Fudan University and Shanghai Communications University became the first Chinese colleges to accept independent recruitment outside of the College Entrance Examinations. From 2010 to 2020, the number of Chinese students studying abroad also more than doubled, showing that some parents — at least the wealthy ones — are recognizing the flaws in the Chinese system. In 2021, the government also banned for-profit tutoring in core school subjects as well as classes on the weekends and holidays in a bid to ease stress on students and level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.
As a result, the future of Chinese education may be a little more laidback, perhaps with slightly less rote memorization and testing and a little more innovation. Given China’s achievements, both in academia and development, however, perhaps a few lessons could be learned from both sides.
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Chinese students try quite hard compared to in the west, and the culture of studying is much better.... but, do not confuse that with the school system. The actual learning methods are very far from optimal in most Chinese schools, and the results they get from their effort aren't nearly at the level of elite western schools.
Apr 08, 2023 16:13 Report Abuse
China's system is far superior to anything the West has got at this point. If the kids are learning Science and Math, they've already got kids here beat who think that 1+1 = Racism. The kids in the Chinese system are better educated and more well equipped to deal with reality than most Western teachers and that's no lie.
Mar 20, 2023 02:46 Report Abuse
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