What Can the American Education System Learn from China’s?

“The curriculum is too focused on rote learning and kills creativity.”

“It’s all work and no play.”

“The competition is too fierce and stressful for quality education at top schools.”

These are just raindrops in the ocean of complaints that target the rigid Chinese education system, which values memorization and determines merit almost completely based on standardized test-taking abilities. It, like the education systems of other East Asian countries, values conformity rather than individuality.

To escape such a system, many Chinese youths (with families that can afford it) look to the West for alternative education opportunities. America is the top destination for Chinese students, who make up 32.5% — the largest single country group — of the total U.S. international student population.

So what could America possibly learn from China about education?

At the age of 14, my parents took me out of the public-school system in American and placed me into that of China’s, which ended up being a transformative experience for me in the way I have come to view education.

As a child, I was a curious girl and an eager learner. I bothered my parents with a million questions; I wouldn’t sleep until I was told a bed-time story; and I enjoyed the bonding time spent with my dad as he picked me up around the house and taught me the English words of bland household items like “clock,” “window,” or “sofa” (Chinese was my first language).

That curiosity and eagerness stayed with me as I entered primary school in the U.S. Within half a year, my English was on par with that of my peers and I was enrolled in the honors classes. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, however, that I started drifting away from learning in school and shifted the bulk of my attention to things like analyzing the latest fashion trends, finding ways to enhance my appearance, or boosting my “popularity” by hanging out with the “right” crowd.

I still received fair grades that kept me in the honors classes, but I no longer cared for it other than to please my parents. Soon, I didn’t even care to maintain an appearance anymore and started skipping school to hang out with the wrong people.

No doubt puberty played role in my antics, but more so, it is because America’s standard school system fails to instill in its students the understanding of the importance of education and the motivation to look up to the right role models.

We may think that the liberal nature of the American education system preaches individuality, but in its early stages, it’s simply preaching another form of conformity.

Thomas Friedman described it best when he compared Chinese and American education in his popular book “The World is Flat,”:

“… (Bill) Gates is recognized everywhere he goes in China. Young people hang from the rafters and scalp tickets just to hear him speak.

In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears-and that is our problem.”

The Britney Spears reference is a bit out-of-date but replaces her with any other young celebrity that the kids are gushing over nowadays and you get what he means.

In America, the smart kids like Bill Gates are not “cool.” Kids like him are nerds.

Kids that don’t give a damn about school? They’re “cool.”

In China? Smart kids are treated with the utmost respect: students want to be like them; teachers take pride in their success; the school showcases them as role models at every opportunity.

This was the world I found myself in when I entered secondary school in China. Suddenly, it was “cool” to be smart.

With each cut-off of the Chinese education system, there would be an examination to be taken that would determine the child’s future school placement, and the competition was fierce for limited spots in the nation’s top schools.

Right then, I was falling behind in every subject except English. Not only did I have to re-pick up Mandarin Chinese (supposedly my mother tongue) and memorize complicated poetry verses by heart for Chinese class, but I also had to play catch up in math and sciences.

I used to hate my parents for putting me in that difficult and awkward situation; everyone else wanted to escape the rigid educational system, why was I doing it the other way around?

There were a number of things that stood out to me in the Chinese education system.

  • Math and science curriculum were far ahead than that of the U.S.; ninth-grade math in the U.S. wasn’t even on par with that of the seventh-grade curriculum in China. Surprisingly, I managed to reach an ‘aha moment’ with a mathematical algorithm that I failed to understand in the U.S., when taught by a Chinese teacher in a language I was still not quite used to.
  • Teachers were treated with a type of respect that I have not seen in America. At the beginning of each class, every student would stand up and bow to the teacher while chanting in unison, “lao shi hao (hello teacher).” It was a ritual infused with Confucian values that preached respect for elders and superiors. In turn, teachers formed close bonds with students and guided them in matters that sometimes fell outside the realms of academics.
  • Kids competed for the best scores in every subject, and almost everyone I knew attended some sort of extracurricular subject tutoring. We were all expected to get to school thirty minutes before classes officially started at 8.a.m to participate in morning reading sessions. In period nearing exam season, it was normal to stay hours past school hours for evening study sessions and sometimes even during weekends. This was the norm and I rarely heard any students or teachers complain.
  • Classroom cleanup is left to the students, not the janitors. Every day after school, a group of students in the class would be tasked with the responsibility of cleaning the classroom: such duties included sweeping and moping the floor, whipping the blackboards, putting all the desks in order etc. Before every class started, a course representative (teacher’s assistant of sorts) would be in charge of making sure that the teaching podium and blackboard were ready for use.
  • Students in China were far more curious about the outside world than those in America. Many students crowded up to me on my first day and asked me questions (however far-fetched) about America; whereas in the U.S., foreign students would be met with a sort of stigma and distance — nobody wanted to be associated with a FOB ( aka “fresh off the boat”).
  • Strict guidelines were enforced on appearances and dress code — no make-up, no untied long hair, and uniforms, which consisted of baggy nylon sweat-suits, always had to be worn. I no longer had a reason to spare time analyzing the latest fashion trends or deciding which lip gloss to use. The bulk of my time and attention was directed towards the task of learning.

It was a difficult time for me — catching up academically and getting used to new disciplinary social norms — but also a time that has helped me establish grit, resilience, and most importantly, a respect for education itself.

With that foundation of respect and hard work ethic, I was able to step back into the higher education system of the U.S. (at a school I probably wouldn’t have gotten into had I stayed in the American public school system) and pick up a valuable sense of social responsibility — to care for and do something about the people and issues that are on the margins — which is the true value of liberal arts education.

I now thank my parents for their farsightedness.

At the end of the say, there are deep fault lines within both the Chinese and American education system — such rigidness in Chinese education and creates tunnel vision and such unruliness in American education sets the wrong values for young students — but they can do well in complimenting one another.

Before young students are mature enough to grasp the full value of education, they can benefit from learning to respect it first.

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