Location: Jian’ou No. 1 Middle School, Fujian Province, China
Since we just finished giving our students their final exams, we thought we would talk a bit about what it is like to teach and learn here in China. We have been fortunate enough to meet and befriend another English teacher in our area. Her name is Suvien and she has been begging us to come see her at work for months. We finally did, thus had the ability to see what schools other than ours are like.
One of our favorite things are the uniforms. Children under the age of eight are required to wear yellow hat/red kerchief combos. They look like members of some sort of scouting troop. It’s interesting because every young student has the same color scheme, regardless of which school they attend. We assume that the name of their school is printed on the brim of their hat but, since we’re illiterate, we can’t tell for certain. It looks a little like Madeline, except the lines the children stand in are longer.
K particularly enjoys how the kerchief serves as a yoke for unruly kids. If they are running around, or not paying attention, or have to go somewhere en masse, then you just grab them by the little cravat around their neck and lead them, like the child chattel they are.
Older children are given the ability to decide what they would like to wear as a class. We’ve been privy to a class discussing which uniforms to buy, and–let me tell you–it’s an ordeal. Ordering uniforms in bulk is expensive, and our kids do quite a bit of shouting and disagreeing in the process. Eventually our class decided on blue jackets.
In terms of school, the West and the East are very different. Individualism vs. collectivism blah blah blah; you didn’t come here to hear that. The interesting thing is that Chinese schooling is pretty much an inversion of everything you can think of in America. It’s called the Confucian system of education, and it pervades every aspect of Chinese society.
In China, people believe that younger students have a greater capacity for learning than older students. We sort of believe that too, right? It’s easier to learn things when you’re young? Well, in China, that means that you do all of your learning when you are young. From primary school through senior high, students are worked rigorously in dozens of subjects, from 6am to 6pm, 6 days a week.
After mandatory school is completed, many students spend their evenings with a private tutor and completing countless hours of homework. Because our school is a magnet school for the small villages in the region, many of our students travel extremely long distances in order to attend class. As a result, with their schedule, some are only able to sleep 4-5 hours a night. Fortunately, our school provides dormitories for kids that can afford to live on campus, which allows them to get more sleep and have more free time.
Once kids graduate and are accepted into college, they’ve hit the proverbial jackpot. They are able to relax. They needn’t attend class or do any work, really. They are able to manage their time as they like, learn about what they find interesting, and–at the end–get a degree. The Chinese collegiate system is–in many ways–similar to the claims that detractors of American higher education make.
My experience as a K-12 student in America was somewhat distinct from that. Where we might be doing artistic projects or singing songs, Chinese children are constantly pouring over textbooks for the accumulation of facts and figures. We are consistently encouraging students to synthesize information in a way that allows them to form their own opinions- to think creatively and constructively- rather than regurgitating copies of the things they have been taught.
In China, students spend very little time cultivating a sense of individuality, and things like extracurricular activities, hobbies, dating, or being global citizens often put on the back burner. Though standardized testing and benchmarks are becoming more important in Western education, the future of students in China is ultimately decided by examinations. Our students are brilliant in many ways, but one of the places where they falter is when they are supposed to create something new out of nothing. They are experts at following rules, templates, and systems, but they can’t occupy the same creative space as a Western teenager.
It’s not all doom and gloom: teachers in China and in the West are some of the most admirable people we know. They devote their lives to their students and work for very little compensation. Even in China, teaching is still a pretty thankless job. Despite differences in their methods, teachers around the world are compassionate and patient human beings.
We are always trying to learn from the methods of the Chinese teachers at our school (especially when it comes to discipline and respect), and they frequently observe our classes since we use many non-traditional methods to engage students. We are fans of showing film clips and singing songs and playing games. We host parties and other things to get our students excited about learning, and in some ways let them guide the trajectory of our lessons, things that would simply never happen in a strict Confucian classroom.
Next week begins break and Spring Festival and we have some big trips and exciting things planned. Stay tuned!