A Chinese Teacher’s Perspective: China and the U.S. Education Systems Compared

A Chinese Teacher’s Perspective: China and the U.S. Education Systems Compared
Jun 06, 2012 By eChinacities.com

Editor's note: This article was translated and edited from an article posted on an ifeng.com blog. In the article, the author, a Chinese citizen who teaches English, recalls his recent experience leading a group of Chinese students on a research project around U.S. colleges and universities. The trip turned out to be quite eye opening for the author. Witnessing the U.S. education system first hand, the vast differences between the Chinese and U.S. education systems became quite clear to him. The author highlights each system's strengths and weaknesses and concludes that they have much to learn from each other.

Soon after graduating from a domestic university with a major in English, I found a job as an English teacher at a local school. I've always taken great pride in my work, and I demand of myself to teach the curriculum to the highest standards. That being said, I'd never given much thought to larger issues regarding the quality and nature of China's education system. Nor had I ever dreamed of working abroad. Yet, despite my prior contentedness with my life as an English teacher at a school in China, a recent series of events, which culminated in me leading a group of Chinese students on a research project across a multitude of American universities, quickly changed my entire outlook on the Chinese education system.

An unexpected opportunity

It all started three months ago during a break in between classes, when the school's principal called me into his office. "Mr Liu," the principal said, "the Smith Barney SRA project will be held in the United States next month, and I want you to lead it." Upon hearing this, my mind promptly short-circuited, and I began to blush uncontrollably. As I opened my mouth to form a response, all that came out instead was a smattering of gibberish: "ah...what...when?"

Unfazed, the principal continued, "Next month, you are to lead 10 students to the United States for a 21-day research project. Our school has worked together with
The Chinese Foreign Service and our U.S. partners three times already. Teacher Wang lead the previous two groups, but due to a family emergency he is unable to attend this time. We've discussed the situation in length and have concluded that your spoken English is probably the best out of the teachers in this school, and that you're the most suitable replacement for Teacher Wang." Before I knew what was happening, I found myself on a plane to the United States, in charge of leading a group of 10 Chinese students.

The teacher becomes the student

Although in retrospect, a 21-day research project is a relatively quick affair, at the time it felt more like 21 years. Research activities were held in numerous different fields, including education, livelihood, healthcare and social security. As a teacher, naturally the research that most interested me was related to the contrasts between the U.S. and Chinese education systems.

Prior to departure, I was mistaken in believing that as the group's leading teacher, my duties would only involve watching over my students to make sure that they do their schoolwork and completing their assigned tasks, and of course ensuring their personal safety. But upon arriving at the first university, I quickly realised that the overall educational environment and openness of student-teacher relations in America are very different than in China. In short, that old adage we're all taught as children about "never being too old to learn" turned out to be quite true. As the days went by, and the U.S. education system continued to rub off on my students, I darn near forgot that I was even their teacher. While technically I was “supervising” my students' research, at the time it felt more like I'd returned to those long distant days of being a student.

As much a student on that trip as those who I was supervising; I gradually came to understand that besides the obvious differences in these two countries' historical and cultural backgrounds, all aspects of each country's education system are also markedly dissimilar. From what I could gather, U.S. schools, past a certain point, don't seem to pay much attention to instilling their students with "rudimentary education" (more colloquially known as the ABCs, 1-2-3s). Instead, they exceedingly value developing and encouraging the students' creative abilities. As such, it comes as no surprise that amongst America's "white collar" demographic, some cannot even handle the simplest of math equations without the use of a calculator. In comparison, Chinese schools have made "rudimentary education" the core of their curriculum, almost exclusively focusing on instilling basic math and science skills in the students, and consequently not paying heed to cultivating their creative abilities or critical thinking skills.

Crudely put, the different focus of each country's education system manifests itself as American students often being stereotyped as "low score, high ability", while Chinese students are  "high scores, low ability". It's no wonder that Fortune 500 companies are generally so reluctant to employ those that passed through the Chinese education system. In their eyes, the system simply fosters “servants of knowledge”, not "educated people".

Chinese are taught discipline; Americans are taught human rights

With the help of several American teachers, our group visited a range of schools –community colleges and Ivy League universities alike. From the overall atmosphere around campus to the free and frank discussions present in the classroom, I truly felt a respect for human rights emanating through and through. While the Chinese education system teaches children what is correct and proper, the U.S. education system teaches children to question what's right or wrong. Simply put, the objective of China's education system is to impart predetermined knowledge, while the America's is to foster citizens and an on-going civil discourse.

During my time at these U.S. colleges and universities, I was reminded of a friend's son back in China, who had not long ago dropped out of a prestigious domestic secondary school. Upon hearing this news, most people were immediately confused: "Why would he drop out of such a good school?" My friend told me that it was actually her idea, and that she'd promptly helped her son take the entrance exams to attend a foreign university instead.

China's exam-oriented education is a huge burden for today's children. Designed to give the students hardly any time to breath, the Chinese education system is adept in teaching the children "summaries", also teaching that it's perfectly acceptable not to question the status quo. Meanwhile, the U.S. education system excels in inspiring its students, instilling in them a desire to continually ask new questions. In the Chinese classroom, a student must raise their hand, wait to be called on and stand up before asking a question. In the American classroom, it's much more encouraged for students to speak freely. In the Chinese classroom, if a student expresses an opinion that runs contrary to the teacher, it's criticised; when this occurs in an American classroom, it's commended. In short, Chinese classrooms teach discipline, while American classrooms teach the principles of human rights.

Becoming an elite: do students choose or are they selected?

It is said that China's education system is an "elite" system – that those students who cannot handle the intensive studies are promptly removed from the system. America's education system, then, could be considered as a compromise of "popular" and "elite" systems – a student decides whether or not to pursue an “elite” track. The academic course options in these two education systems are also vastly different. China's education system requires that students exhaustively study maths, physics and chemistry, and failure in one subject will likely influence the student's future opportunities. Conversely, the U.S. education system holds only the most basic requirements for students in these subjects, allowing them a greater freedom to choose other subjects more to their liking.

For example, if a student in the U.S. is not interested in physics, chemistry or biology, or if they are having difficulty in one or all of these subjects, they can opt to take a basic course in that subject to fulfil the degree requirement, and use the rest of their allotted credits to enrol in other courses that they're interested in. Most importantly, students that are gifted in other subjects can still get in to the top U.S. universities. In short, they have alternate routes for gaining entry to "elite" institutions.

Today, reforms to America's education system are primarily focused on improving the creativity and innovation-mindedness of students. Meanwhile, reforms in China are still much too focused on instilling in students a sense of collectivism and convergent thinking, at the cost of failing to foster their individuality and creativity. China should work to enlarge the innovative foundations of its education system, and take steps to become more international.

In comparing the education systems in China and the U.S., we cannot simply say that one is good while the other is not, as it really varies from student to student. However, as a teacher who has now experienced both sides in action, I believe that China's education system should provide students with better opportunities to develop their creativity. I also believe that America's education system would be better off more prominently emphasising “the basics”. Learning the other education system's strengths to improve your own education system's weaknesses is the best way to improve the overall quality of both education systems. That's what I realised from my time spent in America leading the research project.

Source: blog.ifeng

Related links
Sex Education in China – In the Dark or With the Lights on?
An Education: How China's System Differs from the West's
The Side Road to Higher Education: Applying to a Chinese University

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Keywords: Chinese and U.S. education system compared differences between US and Chinese education Chinese education system weaknesses


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This writer was impressed for something new, that he think is good. It is the same thing that happens when you see a beautiful woman who you don't know that she is sick. I would like to see him teaching in a Chicago high school. Then read about his new views on systems. I don't think that watching for 21 days (inside good universities) can allow someone to compare two educational systems. Yes, China can improve. But saying that the american schools are Excellent and students 'çan think' is a big lie. I was a teacher and a student there for 8 years. I know what I am talking about. 90% of american people are ignorant. they only can talk about stupid movies or ignorant singers. yes,in USA One can find very good universities, however, Elementary, middle and High school are very, very weak. And teaching inside one of them, makes anyone to hate himself. So, don't try to generalize. 90% of USA schools teach nothing. Students know 'nothing'. Check the OCDE records. USA people please stop talking about China's poverty. Stop lying. Chinese people live better than american people. Chinese has not to think about all the crime and drugs that all USA people has to care of 24/7. Real Numbers: 60% (160 million) in USA is poor; and (50 million)are really poor. 47 million need FOOD STAMPS to eat every day. Plus, they live thinking that someone will kill him/her today. I am sure you came to China because you did not find a job in your 'great broken' USA. So, stop lying. If you could see the whole China, you would realise that here is better than in USA. If you don't know yet, in spite of all the resources that USA has stolen from latin countries, today is TOTALLY BROKEN. And thanks to the [3] trillion that the Óld China' has lent to USA, it still can walk. So, stop lying.

Mar 14, 2014 22:14 Report Abuse



On short notice I imagine the flight cost a small fortune.

Feb 20, 2014 17:53 Report Abuse


Sara Haanna

Chinese aducation has become much nicer and before. Especially reflect difference in the international schools. After many years living and working in China, I would like to share some of my experiences, in particular our children’s education. If you’re moving to China or considering an international school in China then hopefully my insights can offer some benefit.
We lived downtown in Beijing, close to the central CBD. The choices for quality schools in this area are limited, however the choices that are available are of a high standard.
The two schools we considered when our Children, were YCIS (Yew Chung International School) and BCIS (Beijing City International School).
We looked closely at both schools and it was initially a tough decision to select between the two, both offer a great environment for the kids and high standard of teaching. We eventually selected YCIS, for a number of reasons, mainly because of their co-teaching approach for young Children, where there is always an English and Chinese speaking teacher in the room. This is great for your children’s language ability. Secondly they focus on embedding positive moral values through their teaching method and offer a program called the “Character Program” where kids do extra curricular activities to help guide them in the right direction as they grow and learn. The experience at YCIS Beijing was one we certainly did not regret, the family environment really made us and our children feel welcomed and loved. The teachers are great and our kids are now fluent Chinese speakers!

Sep 07, 2012 22:46 Report Abuse



Sounds like USA...

Mar 14, 2015 00:47 Report Abuse



The most frustrating aspect of teaching English in China is the students' lack of creativity.
Me: "Good morning!"
Students: Good morning!"
Me: "How are you?"
Students: "Fine thank you - and you?"
A change to any of my words results in blank expressions. Example: "G'day. How you doin'?" or "Are you all well on such a beautiful day?" get no response.
When you do an English exercise that asks the kids what did they do on their day off, it being a National Holiday like Tomb Sweeping day, many of them answered that they did homework! Competitive pressure on the kids to learn is scary and while the schools load them with homework the parents also condone and promote this style of learning and wanting their children to be the best.
Chaching summed it up pretty well as did the author of the article and I am more than delighted to see it was written by a Chinese person. When I am asked about the main differences in my country (Australia) and China my answer is usually centered around the thinking mind of Chinese people. Dumb acceptance, thinking steeped in age old culture, customs and tradition, imprisoned minds that simply cannot grasp that things can be different if you question WHY!! While I love the history and culture of China it should be just that - history and not part of today's behaviour. Frustrating it is and it all starts at the schools. Change there will see change elsewhere - in my humble opinion.
One thing I have realised in my time here is that try as I might I will not be able to change it....but that doesn't stop me from chipping away at every opportunity.

Jun 07, 2012 15:24 Report Abuse



"The world economy will rebound in due time when certain systemic weaknesses have been corrected and by that time the creativity of Western minds will still be intact, whereas that of China's hordes of ill-informed one-trick ponies will most likely have deteriorated even further.

As brainwashed riff-raff like 'Monk Hermit' surfaces to reveal their poorly expressed nationalistic views, it becomes only too obvious that China doesn't have the talent required to become a world leader in any field. "

Damn straight. Couldn't be said any better.

Jun 13, 2012 22:57 Report Abuse



Chaching...many millions of Americans are on the street, homeless, cannot see a doctor or are on daily meds and drugs...others carry guns everywhere...and meantime China hands over 5 billion a day to keep USA running...you talking shite and u dont even comprehend that...that is the problem with USA...deluded...

Mar 14, 2015 00:44 Report Abuse



That's a brilliant way to maintain the status quo.

Let's just all shut up, and cop it sweet, and let the bastards rob as of our freedoms willingly. It's people like you who enable crooks to prosper.

Jun 07, 2012 05:23 Report Abuse



Tom, thank you! I too agree with you wholeheartedly.

Jun 11, 2012 16:46 Report Abuse



If western schools(including HKU) are not better than Chinese schools, why is every family in China with the ability(and some without), sending their children to western schools? Few if any children of wealthy Chinese study in China. Even middle class families at least try to have their children in HK for the better education. The track record for the west producing innovative thinkers and problem solvers is unmatched in the modern world. While Chinese education has produced a national industry from top to bottom that revolves mainly on it's ability to copy the west. The people of China deserve better.

Jun 21, 2012 23:20 Report Abuse



Actually when i started reading, i taught it was sarcasm but you did not create a link to show the irony. so i also give you a tomb down.lol!

Aug 16, 2012 01:52 Report Abuse