Tenth Question [Parfitt]:
What’s your take on Chinese education?
China faces many challenges educating its youth. The Compulsory Education law took effect in 1986. In addition, because urban teachers continue to earn more than their rural counterparts do and because academic standards in the countryside are lower, it remains difficult to recruit teachers for rural areas, so China faces an acute shortage of qualified teachers.
It didn’t help that during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the education system was gutted and literacy dropped to 20%. However, today, literacy is above 90% and improving.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping enacted gradual reforms that included not only the economy but education. One of the first changes was to get rid of Mao’s Little Red Book that inflamed a generation of radical youths during the Cultural Revolution. Today, dogmatic Party slogans have no place in China’s classrooms.
While Chinese education stood still for twenty-seven years under Mao, Western educational science evolved emphasizing critical thinking and problem solving skills over rote learning, and now China is learning those methods and introducing them slowly as teachers are trained.
One component of change sees hundreds of thousands of university students earning degrees in America and other Western nations and then taking that knowledge back to China. In fact, many children of China’s top leaders are attending universities in the West such as Harvard or Stanford.
The first schools to see changes were in Shanghai about 18 years ago, and the results were dramatic when fifteen-year-old Shanghai students took first place in every category in the 2009 international PISA test, which has components that test critical thinking and problem solving skills.
However, China’s central government was quick to announce that the rest of China would take about fifteen to twenty years to catch up to Shanghai.
I understand that over the doorway of classrooms in Shanghai are signs that says something like “there is more than one answers for each question” and the dogmatic methods used for centuries are being phased out as teachers are retrained but change is slow and the challenges many. Teaching an old dog new tricks is not easy.
I taught in Taiwan, where, like China, schooling is test-based, geared toward entrance exams, and bolstered by rote memorization. School days are long (8 to 13 hours), homework received in heaps, and evenings, if free, filled with cram-school classes.
The goal is admission to National Taiwan University, nationally number 1. Globally, it has a Times Higher Education World University Ranking of 115.
In that index’s top 100, China has only 3 entries. Australia has 5, America 52. China’s flagship, Peking University, is ranked 37.
“More than one possible answer,” is great, but I wonder how China can transition to Western education without belittling Confucian principles. I also wonder about returning students, who sometimes find it difficult to assimilate after Western exposure. Returning scientists have said it’s most important to report what superiors want to hear, and that they are powerless to change things. Change requires freedom; freedom is impossible.
Final Word [Lofthouse]:
Most students in collective Confucian cultures have no problems learning from Western educational techniques while surviving the influence of Western values after returning home.
In Singapore, Confucian beliefs are so autocratic, parents face harsh penalties and jail time if a student’s schoolwork suffers. In addition, Singapore students face caning when breaking rules, yet fifteen-year-old students in Singapore placed fifth in the 2009 international PISA test.
In fact, among the top eleven nations that scored significantly above the OECD average in the PISA test, five were cultures influenced by Confucius.
Shanghai-China placed first, South Korea second, Hong Kong-China fourth, Singapore fifth and Japan eighth, while the US placed seventeenth.
In addition, the US may have 52 of the top 100 universities but 62% of foreign students attending US universities are from countries influenced by Confucius, and Doctoral-level institutions, for example, reported an increase of 130 percent, on average, in Chinese students.
Continued on December 8, 2011 in Discussion with Troy Parfitt, the author of “Why China Will Never Rule the World – Travels in the Two Chinas” – Part 12 or return to Part 10.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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