What’s Wrong with China’s Secondary Education System
This post has been a long time coming.
It’s hard to put this in a politically correct way. But it’s better to be straightforward and honest than trying to make a made-for-everyone presentation.
Does anything make me qualified to talk about the Chinese education system, specifically high schools? Not really, just a year of teaching English experience and friends in the same boat. But that’s enough to have an opinion.
What’s Wrong with the average Chinese High School
- Too many students in one class
- Teachers with too many meetings and too few classes
- The military-like environment of many Chinese schools
- Class division according to overall, as opposed to subject-specific, test scores
- Overworked students – No time for anything but studying
- Overly high emphasis on memorization
- The joke called English education
- Resistance to change
Warning: This is a very long post, proceed at your own peril.
Too many students in one class
(Update: More about inefficient class structure in China here.)
This is the most apparent flaw in most Chinese secondary schools, and the one that most Chinese people will most readily provide as the Achilles heel of their education system. Class size is usually at least 50 and often over 60 students per class (at my school every class was about 64 students per class). Could you learn in such an environment?
The expectation is that all of the students will sit quietly and at attendance – that culture and norms will straight-jacket students to study in large classes. But it’s not that simple.
Many teachers can’t control so many students. It’s not conducive to learning. You can imagine why.
However, while the common excuse is that this is because of there being too many students, I don’t buy it. Let’s see why.
Teachers with too many meetings and too few classes
(Update: More about ‘under-worked’ teachers in China here.)
When I was teaching English my first year in China, the pressure the other teachers felt was obvious. So they had too many classes, right?
Strangely enough, most of them had a light class-load. Both the teachers at my school and those at most of the high schools around Shenzhen taught, on average, about 8-12 classes 45 minute classes per week. Does that sound like being overworked?
Cutting the class size in half and doubling each teacher’s teaching load would make class sizes a lot smaller, and most teachers I know back home teach about that many classes. Simple, right?
But there is no denying that Chinese teachers are under pressure, despite the light teaching load. They must be at school from about 7:30 am until 5:30 pm, and often have to supervise night study sessions. Almost all non-teaching hours are spent in their offices, and there are meetings for everything. And they grade the same amount of tests and papers as they would with a greater number of smaller classes.
So why not cut out the extra meetings and add in extra class time?
The military-like environment of many Chinese schools
Some Chinese high schools seem more like boot camps than places of learning. Morning roll call and regimented exercises back me up on this. All across China morning exercises are standard fare for students – almost everybody doing the same ones, guys like this:
At the school I taught at, every Monday morning the principle would scream through a loudspeaker for an hour. Half pep talk, half scare tactics, he pointed out low test scores and achievements and egged on the students to do better.
Is yelling a good way to motivate? What do you think?
Class division according to overall, as opposed to subject-specific, test scores
In most Chinese high schools, classes are divided according to overall test scores, not subject specific test scores. Students sit through all of their subjects in one group of 50-60 students. The classes are ranked, by number.
While this arrangement undoubtedly drives cooperation and fosters a spirit of unity among individual classes, it also means that the abilities of students are matched roughly to the classes they take.
So a student good in English but bad in every other class may end up in the lowest ranked class, meaning his or her English learning will suffer in comparison to someone with similar English levels in the top class.
In practice, it means that it’s impossible to teach to just one level of English in a single class
Division according to subject specific ability may be better. It takes more coordination and planning, but can help develop the strengths of individual students
Overworked students – No time for anything but studying
The biggest complaint most of my former students had is that they didn’t have time for anything but studying. Was it true?
Most Chinese high schools are divided into junior and senior high. Each one is three years long.
The first three years are not so grueling, but the pressure to do well on entrance tests into a better high school is palpable. Even the first year of high school isn’t too bad. It’s the last two years that are killer.
During the last two years of high school, serious students are at school from morning till night five days a week, and a half day on Saturday. Hours are long and activities are few, outside of classes. It all culminates in a two to three day exam that selects those who will go on to college and which one they will get into.
This college entrance exam tests the body of knowledge that is supposed to be acquired during the three years of high school, it is not an aptitude test.
No wonder students have little time to do anything else besides study.
Overly high emphasis on memorization
So many Chinese students study all day. But how exactly do they study? While things are getting better, there is still a massive amount of rote memorization going on. What drives this, of course, is the examination system that tests all of this accumulated knowledge.
It should not surprise you that long hours of rote memorization does not help foster creativity or problem solving skills. But the long hours do prepare you for a lifetime of hard work.
The joke called English education
Let me start right out by saying that not all English departments in Chinese high schools are a joke. There are certainly exceptions. However, what I and those who came to teach English on the same program ran into were a number of reasons why many English programs at Chinese high schools are quite poor.
Some of them you probably guessed just by reading the points above. But here they are:
- Excessively large class sizes for language learning
- Division of ability according non-English subjects
- Lack of well trained teachers
- Lack of good textbooks
- Teaching to the test instead of for true language learning
- Inability to change the status quo
Read on and I’ll tell you why I think there is such resistance to change in the Chinese secondary education system.
Resistance to change
Chinese schools are not much different from public schools around the world. Resistance to change is nearly universal.
Since it would take a complete overhaul and perhaps removal of the current college entrance examination to produce meaningful change, teachers individually and even collectively as a school have little leeway to implement changes. Students must be prepared for their tests.
But time can bring many changes. What do you think?