Chinese education: the flip-side

There’s been a lot of coverage recently of Michael Gove’s Daily Telegraph article praising the Chinese educational system. Much of this has been critical (including this post by the Telegraph’s Shanghai correspondent) , not least because of Gove’s historically-ignorant use of the phrase “Cultural Revolution” to describe the changes he’d like to make to the UK educational system.

Sonny Leong, chair of Chinese for Labour, has written an excellent post on LabourList giving the flip side to China’s apparent high performance in maths and science education. Quite apart from the immense pressure that students are put under, leading to “high suicide rates”, this test-oriented system leads to weaknesses in other areas of educational development:

[Chinese students] are taught to memorise – parrot fashion – and regurgitate what they have studied for exams. Any analysis, discussion or exploration of other concepts or ideals are alien to their learning processes.

These students fail abysmally at non-standardised tests – open-book; open-notes; Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs); and True/False assessments. Why? Because they do not know how to pass exams that they have not practised for. Their incapability to apply knowledge acquired in a classroom to real life or non-standardised exams is a cause of concern for many parents and educators.

Students grow up lacking social interaction, interpersonal, teamwork and communicating skills because they have not been allowed to acquire or develop them. All their waking hours are spent on memorising and more memorising.

Leong continues:

As a Chinese father, I would not be happy at all in schooling my four year old daughter in Singapore or Shanghai. I wouldn’t want my child to go through the ‘pressure cooker’ educational system where she is taught just to pass exams and incapable of any further comprehension.

I’m not saying the current state of UK education is perfect, but we shouldn’t fetishise the Chinese system. Sadly, I suspect a Gradgrindian system of rote learning which crushes any “analysis, discussion or exploration of other concepts or ideals” is precisely the educational model to which many Tories aspire – for other people’s children. I’d have hoped that Michael Gove would know better, though.


5 thoughts on “Chinese education: the flip-side”

  1. and when I was teaching (10 years ago now, but I doubt it’s improved) I was constantly aware of the fact that this is how our own system is going. Modularisation of the GCSE and AS/A2 levels meant the students were tested twice a year (which involved much classroom time being devoted to practice tests as well) – all they were learning was how to pass the test, not how to use and apply knowledge. As for the Chinese system there was a very good (though terrifying) documentary on BBC4 a couple of years ago called “Chinese School”. Horrible system – doubt you’ll be able to get hold of it now, but worth looking out for if it’s ever repeated

  2. Tell me about it. And whenever I’ve had a case of plagiarism on a course I’m teaching, it’s almost always been from the Chinese (national, as opposed to ethnic) cohort of students. It is a real problem.

    That’s not to say the Eastern systems get literally everything wrong. They have very high exam standards which their students meet, and that is a Good Thing. But they don’t turn out mathematicians; they turn out (at best) very proficient calculators. The high standards need to be matched with encouraging students to be creative.

  3. Gove’s historically-ignorant use of the phrase “Cultural Revolution”

    Good God, what is it with right-wing politicians and sheer bloody ignorance?

    First, we have George Bush’s stupid and potentially inflammatory use of the word “crusade” to describe his ambitions in the weeks after 9/11.

    Second, David Cameron having to apologise for implying that Britain was America’s ‘junior partner’ in 1940 during the early phase of the Second World War (you’d think a Tory Prime Minister might know something about Churchill and about ‘our island story’).

    Third, this.

    If these comments illustrate a conservative adherence to rigorous, fact-based history then I think I’ll live and die as an ignorant know-nothing socialist.

    1. Don’t forget the original term for US military response to 9/11: “Operation Infinite Justice”, quickly changed to “Operation Enduring Freedom” after it was pointed out that the original name was offensive to both Muslims and Christians – not to mention anyone with a brain.

  4. I’m not sure if Leong holds his opinions from ever having marked a GCSE paper in anything. They are pretty much mechanical nowadays – not only spew out the answer you’ve had banged into your head, but it’s all at a miserably low level, and some of the model answers are actually wrong. For instance, a cause of high temperature has ‘sore throat’ as model answer in a biology GCSE paper.

    As for maths – I defy anybody to do a Chinese 18+ paper, with anything but full understanding because the questions are difficult. I gave a Singapore y5 primary school assessment paper to maths graduates and they had to think hard to spot a trick, not just regurgitate some theorem.

    Anyway, what’s wrong with a bit of rote learning? I’m a maths teacher, and if children don’t understand number theory at the age of 10, I’m still insisting that they memorize their times tables. If the parents can afford the time, they can help with the understanding, or hire a tutor, or log onto BBC Bitesize, but to sit here and criticize another country for turning out better equipped scholars is truly ignorant.

    Why waste time being defensive and indignant about Chinese hothousing? Our children are just as clever, and they deserve to be given the more difficult and challenging work, or we, as a nation, will be left behind in the global marketplace.

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