Highs and Lows of Chinese Education

Merely saying the word curdles the juices of Chinese high-schoolers. It’s a word that invades their minds from diapers onward, piercing, commanding, enervating. The thought of it boomerangs around their insides like a bouncy ball made of needles. It is called the High Test.

The other day, the teacher demonstrated how to use “xinku,” the Chinese word for “toil,” in the following way: “A high school student must toil for many hours to prepare for the High Test, which will determine where she goes to college.” There is also an adjective form: “High school is toilsome due the High Test.” And the superlative: “By far the most toilsome thing in the life of a Chinese is the High Test.”

Okay, I get it. The High Test is tough. But it can’t be that much worse than the SATs. Right?

I’ll report, you decide: In China, you spend two years studying for the High Test, which you take shortly before graduating high school. On a typical school day, you might arrive at your classroom at 5:30 a.m. to begin studying, and get off at 10:30 p.m. You often continue studying even after that. You have one day off per month.

If you do well on the High Test—a 10-hour long affair with an occasional paramedic to revive those who faint—then you’re golden, since colleges don’t give a hoot about anything other than your score. If you don’t perform so well, then you might take a “gap year” during which you spend all your time preparing to take the test again.

All this has made me think my American high school, where students did study but also, in the words of a local friend, had something called “fun.” Mention that word to Chinese students here and, well, they’ll think you’re speaking another language.

The High Test creates accountability, because students across the country take the same test. It promotes meritocracy, ruthlessly rewarding the best performers over apple-polishers whom teachers favor with good grades. In a country crippled by corruption, bribes might help with a report card but won’t budge your score on the one exam that really matters. And there is no doubt that studying for it makes kids maddeningly smart. The High Test is the perfect system.

And yet. What about the kid who’s feeling sick on exam day, or is blue from a death in the family? What is more, that an entire high school career funnels toward a single assessment relegates genuine learning to the back seat. Not enlightenment but achievement—the kind that can be quantified and divided by some national average—becomes the lighthouse of one’s education. There is no room for intellectual risk-taking, since you could squander your only shot.

I often see similar threads in my own Chinese class here—a focus on knowledge over imagination, product over process. Teachers like to pick apart details without launching us beyond the stars.

Furthermore, the High Test advances a view of education that is deep but narrow. To prepare for the exam, you select either humanities or sciences in the beginning of high-school, and that’s all you study for the rest of your academic life. You perhaps become “I” shaped rather than “T” shaped, plumbing your own field without a larger recognition of how your discipline interacts with others.

So, China, move beyond the High Test. Turn it into confetti. That way, Chinese students can take themselves to greater heights, more beautiful vistas. And so what if afterward a student or two gets blown off the conventional course? Let them chance upon a New World. Let them soar. When they do, we can celebrate with the confetti.

Advertisements

About gregkristof

Professional troublemaker
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Highs and Lows of Chinese Education

  1. dan says:

    good on them. American schools should take note. Maybe if we spent less time on building “imagination” with arts and crafts projects and more time on fundamentals we would have a more competitive workforce.

  2. Allie, Dearest says:

    “Not enlightenment but achievement—the kind that can be quantified and divided by some national average—becomes the lighthouse of one’s education. ”

    I see, too, that this is not the idealistic educational environment prized by American child psychologists. But as an aspiring economist, I’m daily faced with the gap between American and Chinese academic achievement in terms of their impact on sustained national growth and productivity. Sometimes I wonder if enlightenment makes a person too resistant to sacrifice, hard work and achievement.

  3. Magali Goirand says:

    Great post! Good luck with your gap year. It is such a wonderful decision to spend a year off in a different environment before getting sucked into a demanding academic track.

    The system you describe is similar to the “concours des grandes ecoles” in France [ Great schools contest], except that in France it happens one or two years after high-school. The French system’s weakness is exactly what you describe: you study a narrow field. Once you are on one track, you end up stuck there. There is also another side effect: because it is a contest, it does not encourage collaboration, and team work.

  4. jollof says:

    Very insightful. I recall a coverage on CNN about this High Test and I was in awe. Little kids going through such a gruelling experience with such commendable motivation. The only ‘gruelling experience’ the average high school kid in Nigeria goes through is carrying an overloaded rucksack on his/her back…eventually causing (in some cases) their posture to change from ‘I’ to ‘/’

    Keep blogging! 😀

  5. Katya says:

    On specialising early–this doesn’t seem too different from the British A-level system… And on intellectual risk-taking, I don’t feel the American system encourages it either. I went to an Ivy League College. I noticed that students with the high GPAs did better coming out of college, and that you can get a higher GPA by taking easier courses. Taking the risk of trying a more challenging course runs the risk of lowering your GPA. I did go the risk-taking route myself, but I also noticed that students who did not take risks with their courses (take Spanish rather than Chinese–I took Chinese and it was back in the 80s before it was fashionable, but many opted for an easier language…) did better when applying to grad schools. And people were thinking about that from day 1… I did great in the long run, but I did not go the safe way, and it was quite a fight. Also, incidentally, having studied and mastered 5 languages, I can say that my Chinese language teachers were hands-down the best instructors I had.

  6. Joseph Cincotta says:

    Thank you. Good thoughts, for the most part; I was with you till the last paragraph: “So China…” I winced a bit at the hubris, even as I trust no disrespect was intended. However, Americans are not tuned to tones the way Chinese are; there very language is tonal.

    A blog is an informal forum for ideas; a place to gather thoughts that potentially may engender a piece of serious writing. I believe there are some really good points here, I’m encouraging both of you to make them in a way so that they are heard by those who could make some positive change.

    Push it forward even if it’s uphill … the view is better the higher you go.
    JC

  7. Joseph Cincotta says:

    Thank you. …Good thoughts, for the most part; I was with this till the last paragraph: “So China…” I winced a bit at the hubris, even as I trust no disrespect was intended. However, Americans are not tuned to tones the way the Chinese are; their very language is tonal. The implied entreaty to improve the educational process is ultimately about bridge building and I believe the unfortunate tone subverts that aim.

    That may be OK, after all, a blog is an informal forum for ideas; a place to gather thoughts that potentially may engender a piece of serious writing. There are some really good points here, I’m encouraging both of you to make them in a way so that they are heard by those who could make some positive change.

    Push it forward even if it’s uphill … the view is better the higher you go.
    JC

  8. nancy says:

    Enjoyed this piece— our education system needs an overhaul but will that ever happen if our first priority is money? We spend way too much time as parents just trying to fund basic public education and get a full school year. We should be ashamed.

  9. Jimmy (Bob) says:

    I’m torn between which system is actually beneficial for the youth of the population. In a sense, I agree that Americans should a deviate a bit from the whole “we build better children with scissors and glue but that is also necessary for building personality. This whole idea that studying until your eyes lose their own sense of perception is maybe what we consider here “too stressful.” Great article Rick, enjoyed it.
    Can’t wait to wreck you in Fifa when you return home.

  10. lishan says:

    very insightful.bu kui shi xue wenke de …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s