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How education works in practice

The Chinese take education very seriously and students are often under great parental and peer pressure to succeed. For centuries, education has been seen as the key to future prosperity. Confucian thinking introduced the Imperial Exam System, under which civil servants, government officials etc. were obliged to pass exams in order to be employed. Often the exams had no practical element and officials were selected on their ability to write poetry or on the beauty of their calligraphy.

Today, under the Communist Party, the exam system is still paramount.  Students spend most of their time memorising, and 'listen and repeat' is the main method of instilling knowledge. Teachers are held in high regard (if not rewarded highly in financial terms) and are very much seen as authority figures. Unlike in western schools, where it could be said that the primary goal of the teacher is to direct the students towards knowledge, the Chinese method sees the students as empty containers to be filled from the teacher's store of knowledge. This leads to a number of problems for foreign teachers entering the system.

Chinese education is fact based. Students are continually trying to 'remember' the facts. Walking around the campus of any Chinese institute of higher education, you will meet students sitting under the trees reciting their text books in an effort to memorise them. They will 'learn' page after page of English conversation by heart, yet be unable to use the language. Success in language learning is not measured in fluency,  but in the volume of 'vocabulary' and grammar rules you have memorised. 

Classes in junior and middle schools tend to have 50-60 students and they spend much of their time reciting. "Listen and repeat" is the teachers' main instruction. Many teachers are aware that the class size is a serious problem, especially in language learning, but there is little they can do to counter it.

This dependence on memory leads to a situation in which the 'teacher is infallible, the text-book is infallible." Students often report that they 'haven't learned the book yet.' In one teacher training college I was asked, "What do you do if something terrible happens in class?" I couldn't imagine what calamitous event the student was predicting so I asked for an example. "What if a student asks a question and you don't know the answer?" For a Chinese trainee-teacher this was the most appalling thing that could happen - loss of face.

This leads to perhaps the most common complaint from foreign teachers. Chinese students generally show a complete lack of study skills and there is an almost complete absence of critical thinking. For example, literature students memorise the names of western authors and their works. They seldom actually read the texts. When studying a poem, they will be told the meaning and interpretation by their teacher and are expected to repeat this interpretation verbatim in the examination. I once asked a group of university third year students what they thought of a poem I had asked them to read and was told,

"We don't know. You haven't told us yet."

Opinion is not valued. Only passing the exam is relevant. Students will ask in the first class of  a three year course, "What about the exam?" This leads to what is seen by many foreign teachers as a situation in which students are taught how to pass the exam rather than taught the subject. And once you have passed the examination, you can forget everything and move on to the next one.

Many, if not most, college teachers are hopelessly under-qualified themselves. This doesn't seem to matter as they can always read the textbook to the class. 

Such a teacher led system also leads to the students taking little responsibility for their own education. Motivation is often quite low. Students may have aspired to a key university and ended up in a provincial college. There is little incentive to better themselves.

One method used to try to raise motivation is the competitive element. Chinese schools, universities and colleges all have regular competitions. These occur in the college, at city, provincial and national level. It seems that there is nothing which cannot be made into a competition. English speaking competitions were the bane of my existence when I was teaching. Thirty or forty students make cliché-ridden speeches which they often do not understand. No-one listens, least of all the judges. And the prize is awarded to the teachers' favourite party member anyway. But the proverbial biscuit was taken the day my evening class was cancelled because my students were taking part in a 'morning exercise competition'. Yes, in the evening!

Lack of personal responsibility is not only fostered in the classroom. University and college students live in on campus dormitories and every aspect of their life is controlled from dawn to dusk when they are locked in for the night. For more on this see the student section of these pages.

The upside of all this for the foreign teacher is that the students often find this 'karaoke education' incredibly dull, so find the foreigners' more interactive teaching methods very interesting. At first there is often great resistance to the new methods, but soon the students work out what is expected of them and appreciate the more active environment. However, if one is not careful, there is a danger that the foreign teachers' classes can be seen as 'entertainment' and not treated seriously. This accusation can come from students, parents or school authorities.

The Chinese education authorities are aware of these problems and are introducing reforms. Unfortunately, the current system is highly entrenched and the teaching staff are often unable or unwilling to introduce the reforms. The exam system, and the lack of creative and critical thinking are the two main areas desperately needing change, but these reforms take time.

So why would you want to work in this situation? Well, here I have mainly painted the down side. For the upside click here.


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