Memories are often said to be prone to distortion. However, I can recall the year that I spent in the Chinese education system with clarity and certainty. Classes began at 8 o’clock sharp and ended at 4:30 PM. We were asked to sit with our hands behind our backs for hours at a time. There were also frequent examinations, and our scores were pinned on the walls for all to see. It often felt as though the weekend would never arrive. When I moved to Canada with my parents in the summer after first grade, I did not feel a trace of remorse about leaving my school and instructors behind.
Now, almost 15 years later, I am re-experiencing the Chinese education system, albeit from a different perspective. I recently started working as an ESL teacher and am responsible for teaching a college English course to a group of around fifty Mainland Chinese students. To say that I was unprepared for my role would be a vast understatement. My first class left me frazzled and frustrated. A number of my students spent the entire class on their phones. A few left during the break after I took attendance. Most students sat in impassive boredom despite my best efforts. What was most troubling of all, however, was that this trend continued through the ensuing classes.
Was it my teaching method that needed adjusting? The course materials? Some combination of the two? I wracked my brain for solutions, but remained at a loss over what to do. When I finally approached the administrators at the college about the matter, I was told that my students’ behaviour was normal, if not expected. The person that I spoke with calmly informed me that the Chinese education system is organized differently from Western ones. High school is the most critical period, while higher education — though standards vary markedly from institution to institution — is generally lax and permissive. After some further digging on my own, I made the following observations:
Elementary (1st – 5th grade)
Elementary school is meant to establish an infallible foundation for future learning, meaning there is very little room for fun and games (which I know from personal experience). At the end of 5th grade, there is a nation-wide examination to determine which middle school students will attend. Admittance into one of the few top tier middle schools means better teachers, facilities, resources, and so forth.
Middle School (6th – 9th grade)
Middle school is best thought of as a transition period, where prior knowledge is reinforced and built upon. Middle school also culminates in an examination — this time to determine which high school students will attend. Once again, students are competing for limited spots at a few highly regarded schools. However, this time around, the exam is far more difficult, for more specialized subjects (chemistry, physics, politics, etc.) are included.
High School (10th – 12th grade)
High school is reserved for preparing for the Gaokao, or the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. The test takes place over the course of several days, and spans a wide variety of subjects. A student’s score on the Gaokao determines the university tier they get to go to. In terms of stress level and workload, high school is by far the most exhausting. School often ends at 9 or 10 in the evening, and students have to attend mandatory self-study sessions on the weekends.
Higher education takes many different forms, as is the case in other parts of the world. There are vocational schools, colleges, as well as public and private universities. However, as mentioned earlier in the article, higher education — as a single category — is arguably the easiest period in a Chinese student’s educational career. Attendance, for instance, sometimes comprises 50 percent of a student’s total course grade. Moreover, unless a student is intent on pursuing graduate studies, there is no exam to prepare for and consequently, there is considerably less incentive to pay attention in class.
After doing my research, I feel that I have achieved a deeper understanding of the causes of my students’ apathy. On a more personal level, the year that I spent in the Chinese education system was more than enough to convince me of its merciless nature. Nonetheless, even though I am of the opinion that my students deserve a long overdue break, I still hope to be able to evoke their interest. It was never my intention to make my course about test performance, and I will do everything in my power to convey this point. And maybe, just maybe, my students will begin to engage with the material and walk away with a few fond memories of their college English class.