Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ruled by School

By Beth Green

A public high school English class Beth
visited in Guizhou, China in 2009
They zoomed by on rusty bicycles, dressed in uniform polyester track suits that betrayed their school affiliation. Scraped-up rubber-soled shoes dragged on the pavement as brakes, while a buddy (or sometimes two) clung on the newspaper rack behind. The first time I noticed the kids in my neighborhood in China, I mostly noted their prowess in dodging through gaps in traffic that I, as a Westerner, perceived as an impenetrable mass of cruel speeding metal.

A few weeks later, my street-crossing skills having developed to a point where I could actually notice anything else, I checked my watch when I saw the scores of students zipping across the busy street to our housing development. It was already 10 p.m., but these high schoolers looked like they were just then making it home.

Around that same time, I began to teach my first English lessons to Chinese children at a private training center. For me, the job was quite a switch from teaching businesspeople in Europe—there, I’d worked Monday to Friday during regular business hours. But now, I taught nights and weekends. This was perfect for me, as I now had the weekdays free to explore China. But, inversely, what did it mean for my students?

With interest, I noticed that even our kindergarten-level English lessons went on till 9 or 10 p.m.; our grade-school level classes on weekday evenings were attended by kids hauling literal suitcases full of homework; our middle-school kids wore their school uniforms even on weekends. These kids’ lives were ruled by school.

World newspapers have already reported it: China has taken top marks in theworld’s scorecard for math, science and reading. My students were, to read about it in the news, braniacs in the making, trouncing the competition at international levels and jam-packing their brains full of the all-holy knowledge that was bridging the gap from the Second World to the First.

But when, I wondered, did these kids get to be kids? School is an important part of growing up (I am a teacher after all), but, in the West we’re taught that we are the sum of our experiences, not the grand total of our knowledge.

When did the youth of China get to have fun? In my English class, it turned out, and precious few other times.

There’s a Chinese maxim, which all students learn. In Chinese it probably sounds like any other proverb, but in English, you can see the emphasis: “Study Study Hard, Day Day Up.”

Many of my students, and not only the richer ones (though, it must be said, because I was teaching at a private training center, which required a not-small payment of yuan in exchange for tutelage, most of my students were at least middle-class) opted to board at school after age 11 or 12, not because their schools were far away (one girl told me her middle school was just down the road from her parents’ home) but so there would be less distraction from the all-important homework.

Homework (that dreaded H-word) made up such a large part of my students’ lives that it was a rare class indeed when my students didn’t bring it up—even in modules where I wasn’t assigning any homework.

What did you do yesterday?” I’d ask, in my on-going war for correct usage of the past tense. “Homework,” I’d hear mumbled from all corners of the room. “What are you going to do the day after tomorrow?” I’d ask, jazzing up the group for a lesson on future tenses. “Homework,” a student would cry, flinging her hands up in the air and then mock-slamming her forehead on the desk. The only time I could get away from homework when talking about their daily routines was when I’d ask, “What do you do in your spare time?” Then, the answer was positively depressing: “Sleep.”

Beth with an adult English class in China in 2007
The debate between which educational system is better—the Western or the Asian—I cannot answer. Test scores speak volumes for discipline and the value families place on education. However, as anyone who has read the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua knows, pushing kids to achieve-achieve-achieve can backfire as well. The scary statistics on student suicides also make an emphatic point against such high-stress education. But, I can offer some anecdotal evidence from my own years teaching.

My students in China found it easy—laughable, in fact—to memorize short vocabulary lists. Grammar rules were duly noted and could be recited (if not always followed). Games like “Hangman” or charades were played not on intuition or by inspiration but through a strategy (if it was a five-letter word, the students would often flip through the textbook, looking for words of the same length and not bothering to call out letters of the alphabet).

But, public speaking? The semester the foreign teachers decided all high-school level students had to sign up for, prepare and then deliver a two-minute presentation (on any topic—one girl talked about her shoes, another about a favorite Korean pop star), you’d have thought we’d asked them to break wild stallions. I had few students who were comfortable with addressing a group, even if they had time to prepare and rehearse—and, with no penalty for making errors, as we gave them marks just for doing it.

Group work was similarly difficult, even downright scary for them. My students shared with me that their public schools had zero emphasis on teamwork or on projects. While, sure, you can learn math, physics or English without doing a group project, there are few jobs in today’s world that don’t require some group participation.

A student practices writing an informal letter
Writing essays or mock letters—which is a standard requirement for many international English tests, for example the ones required of university students before they are allowed to study abroad—was a whole other quagmire of problems and misunderstandings. Several students attempted to memorize entire books of handy business letter phrases, then fit them together like a puzzle. In theory, that sounds good. In practice, I can tell you, it isn’t pretty.

So, those kids in Shanghai who knock the socks off their American counterparts with their blazing-hot test scores? Kudos to those kids, they’ve worked hard for their grades, and likely have sacrificed what we in the West nostalgically idolize as our “childhoods” for them. And, the rest of the world? Westerners are doing good with learning practical skills in their school experiences—can we learn some discipline too?

What do you think? Is there more to school than just tests?


  1. Beth, this is a fascinating inside look at education in China. I had a Chinese man in Washington tell me that Chinese has no tenses, so I empathize with your trouble teaching them. I, too, use hangman to teach English vocabulary, but I make the students close their textbooks! Then they have to rely on memory.

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