Now that students in three Chinese cities have gone to the head of the international class in the PISA tests, we are starting to see coverage of Chinese education, much of it tinged with a trace of sour grapes. 1) “Schools in Shanghai are better than the average school in China.” 2) “Chinese students all learn by rote.” 3) “Chinese students are concerned only with the test.”
1) This must be meant to suggest that China’s scores wouldn’t be so high if they included test-takers from smaller cities and rural areas and that picking and choosing cities gives an unfair picture of Chinese education. That’s true, but it’s beside the point. Comparing China and Europe: we have focused on Finland’s schools as establishing a world-class standard of education without worrying that other schools in Europe are not as good as Finnish ones. Finland’s five million people run better schools than the rest of Europe, so they may have lessons for us. What about Shanghai’s twenty million? Or is the point of PISA testing a competition?
2) This may be true, except when it isn’t, but it bears more investigating. In a pedagogy that recognizes the differences among knowledge, skill, and understanding, rote learning has its place and should not be sneered at per se. The question should be Is rote learning used appropriately and with discretion? A refinement of that question: Is it complemented by coaching (skill) and Socratic probing (understanding)?
3) It is probably true, though not universally. The poet Du Fu (712 – 770) took the Civil Service Examination twice, failing both times. The failures didn’t keep him from writing over fifteen hundred poems, and at one point he even worked as an education bureaucrat, writing test questions for exams, a job he hated. One explanation of his first failure is that he refused to modify his dense style to suit the tastes of his examiners. The generally accepted explanation of the second failure was a case of result-rigging by a suspicious office-holder. But even if Du Fu is an exception that proves a rule, how different is that rule from the one governing test-preparation in the Land of No Child Left Behind?
Let me add some observations that are the result of having taught at a high school in China:
• Chinese students are strongly inclined by upbringing to respect their teachers. September 10 is the national Teacher Day, and it is widely observed. It is impossible to explain briefly how this one attitude washes away mountains of crap from schools.
• They are highly mindful of their studies. Electronic entertainment and distraction are making some inroads, but generally, when Chinese students study and pay attention, they do so successfully. This success is the result of good habits’ being instilled early and proved often.
• Their parents are generally the allies of their teachers, supporting teachers and encouraging their children to do well. At parent conferences the student often attends, sometimes translating English into Chinese—accurately, even when the teacher has a reproof to deliver.
• They tend to see schooling as a mission to accomplish rather than an annoyance to be endured.
• They are sixteen in many of the same ways that high-school students are sixteen around the world.