The New York Times


September 2, 2013

Chinese Educators Look to American Classrooms

BEIJING — To prepare for an endless barrage of secondary-school exams, Zhang Ruifan learned to memorize entire science textbooks. So when his family sent him to high school in the United States, he was so far ahead of his fellow freshmen in math and science that he usually knew the correct answer even before the teacher had finished speaking.

“I’d just blurt it out,” he said in an interview while back home here this summer.

But Ruifan, 15, who goes by Derek in the United States, soon discovered that science was more than just facts and formulas meant to be regurgitated on tests.

At school in West Des Moines, Iowa, where he lived with a host family, his science teacher donned protective goggles and used a long-reach lighter to ignite a hydrogen balloon, just so students could get a firsthand look at the element’s explosive properties.

Then there was the day he and his classmates went up to the roof to learn about gravity by dropping basketballs, tennis balls and other objects over the edge. “Back in China I learned about gravity from a PowerPoint slide,” he said. “That’s it.”

The United States State Department does not break down its data on visas by age and school type, but anecdotal evidence here suggests that increasing numbers of middle-class families are looking for a way out of China’s test-taking gantlet.

“I didn’t want my son to become a book-cramming robot,” said Ruifan’s mother, Wang Pin, explaining why she sent him to live and learn halfway across the world. American educators and politicians have been warning for years that rising powers like China and India are poised to overtake the United States in science achievement. On a 2009 standardized test that drew worldwide attention, students in Shanghai finished first in the sciences among peers from more than 70 countries, while the United States came in 23rd (right behind Hungary).

But even many Chinese educators are dismayed by the country’s obsession with stellar test results. Last fall they convened a conference on the topic in Shanghai.

“When American high school students are discussing the latest models of airplanes, satellites and submarines, China’s smartest students are buried in homework and examination papers,” said Ni Minjing a physics teacher who is the director of the Shanghai Education Commission’s basic education department, according to Shanghai Daily, an English-language newspaper. “Students also have few chances to do scientific experiments and exercise independent thinking.”

That message appears to be getting through to Chinese education officials, who are moving toward the American model of hands-on science learning. This summer, the Ministry of Education launched the latest in a series of campaigns aimed at shifting the focus away from standardized testing.

The ministry said the systemic fixation with testing “severely hampers student development as a whole person, stunts their healthy growth, and limits opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit, and practical abilities in students.”

But as with so many orders from the central government, it remains to be seen whether these guidelines, aimed at provincial education departments, will be adopted or ignored.

Meanwhile, preparation for China’s national university entrance exam continues to dominate the lives of secondary students. Known as the gaokao, or high test, the exam takes nine hours over two days, and some say it makes the SAT look like a pop quiz. Compounding the pressure, gaokao results are the sole factor used to determine university admissions.

This ironclad criterion, combined with the fact that most families have only one child, gives Chinese parents little incentive to encourage extracurricular activities, lest it divert their children from the slog of gaokao memorization. Critics say it also produces poorly socialized adolescents who are ill-prepared to face the challenges of the real world. Students have their own term for describing the way their teachers impart knowledge: “feeding the ducks.”

As a science teacher in the northwestern region of Ningxia, Wei Jinbao has seen firsthand how China’s education system transforms children into hardworking students with an impressive capacity for processing factual information. “Give them a problem and they will find the answer,” he said. “However, they can’t ask a good question.”

Like many Chinese science professionals, Mr. Wei is keenly aware that the country has yet to produce a Nobel Prize winner in the sciences whose research is homegrown. Over the years, he has tried to spark innovative thinking among his students, but he is missing a critical element: lab equipment, which most Chinese schools see as an unnecessary expense.

Asked why, he sighed in exasperation. “The entrance exam doesn’t test experiments,” he said.

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Having first-hand experience at teaching in China on more than one occasion, I am all too familiar with this discussion. For those US educators who read the headline and think, "See, even the Chinese want to adopt our teaching practices. After all, we teach students to think," please "think" again. This desire for change is not coming from the PRC (People's Republic of China), but from a handful of individuals who are attempting to inject change into the Chinese educational system. And let me add, a system that is very effective and every year produces many of our top students post-immigration to the US. To think the Chinese government, or people, want their students to be more like American students would be sheer folly on our part and would extend our levels of self-importance and conceit to new levels of arrogance. I do not make these comments lightly. In addition, most Asian and Indian parents who bring their children here for a better life are often sorely disappointed with the "American" system of education (though they are often too polite to say it that way. I am not.) Why do you think our Chinese communities are bursting at the seams with Chinese prep academies teaching SAT, PSAT, SHSAT, chemistry, physics, etc...? It is because their children are being taught at a level much lower than when they lived abroad and they want them to be at the very top.

The gaokao is a test that would have even the best of our students on their knees crying "Uncle." The verbal component sits well above even the lessons I delivered at two of NYC's top Chinese SAT prep schools. It is grueling and no one should ever wonder why our Asian and Indian students score as high as they do on the verbal component of the SAT. Has anyone ever wondered why the essay component was added to the SAT? If you look at the data prior to this addition, our Asian students were "eating our student's lunch" each year with consistently higher scores than their American counterparts. This is a broad, sweeping generalization, but accurate. The essay component is intended to be a speed bump - an equalizer, if you will. If it were intended to help students write a better essay, then why are so many of our native English-speaking students required to take remedial English tests upon acceptance to college? Has anyone ever read of the "glass ceiling" for admission of our Chinese students that was taking place in California years back?

I am often criticized for my unwavering "pro-Chinese educational system" support, but I respect any educational system that holds its ideals to a premium. Ask any new Chinese immigrant, say a 6th grade student, how is the math here in NY? They will very politely tell you they were doing that math in 2nd and 3rd grade in China. Ask any new Chinese immigrant in HS what were their favorite classes in middle school. It is usually (especially for the girls) chemistry, physics and international trade - with the content material all being on the level of our HS curricula.

I could go on, but for those educators who read this and think we can now rest on our laurels because the Chinese want to emulate us, I say watch the documentary "2 Million Minutes" to see what is going on in Chinese and Indian classrooms and then tell me we are top dog. If I burst anyone's bubble, don't shoot the messenger.

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