China has made me feel anything but “big,” it’s respectfully made me feel very small, which I’ve come to very much appreciate. China, a world leading power, is progressing faster than ever in its education system. It’s taking on new ideas with different approaches, shaping educators to be energetic and work together effectively. Change is a long and ongoing process, but it hasn’t stopped China from taking it on full force. I am only a second year ESL teacher and a first year ESL teacher in China. I’m not an education expert, nor a child development specialist, nor am I versed beyond my own brief experience with China’s education system. With some research, observation, and a better understanding of my surroundings, however, I have really found Chinese students and the education system here to be fascinating. Are younger generations of Chinese students growing in a more nontraditional and even undisciplined way? Are they adapting a more Western, independent way of thinking? I posed these questions to myself during my first year of teaching and have made three key observations about working inside the public school system here in Shenzhen. With that being said, I only work at one school in a small part of a gigantic city in an enormous country, so please take what I am reflecting on with these realities in mind in this 3 part series.
The Pressure is On: The Quest for Knowledge and Perfection
China is like nothing I expected. Naturally, I possessed all of the stereotypes of the hardworking Asian student, but was nevertheless surprised by the students’ energy and thirst for knowledge, specifically in my class. Since I am the first foreign teacher to work at my primary school, I definitely do think that added to the curiosity and interest in my background and perceptions. One thing I have noticed is several of the teachers at my school are so intrigued by the concept of fostering independent thought in their students. While I don’t know whether this has been the case in prior years, it does strike me as something quite new and organic in the Chinese classroom. When a collectivist culture ascribes to seek individuality, well, this strikes me as something big. Is Chinese culture in education for younger students, shifting toward developing more critical and creative thinking processes?
Chinese students tend to think deeply, search for the correct answer. Most students are usually timid to participate or answer at all, in fear of being incorrect. Tests weigh heavily on Chinese students, as they do back in the states or anywhere else in the world, but in China, it feels more intense.
For high schoolers, the Chinese college entrance exam (known as the Gaokao exam), seems to surpass the added on stress and importance more than other college entrance examinations taken around the world. More than 9 million students take it in China every year, and it is the only way for students to gain entry to University. The pressure is extremely high from parents and the nation. Major problems rise every year like cheating due to the extreme pressure the exam gives students. Tessa Wong reported about the Gaokao exam to BBCNews stating, “The Gaokao is seen as a make-or-break opportunity, especially for those from poorer families, in a country where a degree is essential for a good job.” Chinese people feel it determines the ultimate success factor for the rest of their lives. This adds to Chinese students’ competitive nature, the raising standards and qualifications for University, or the desire to eventually study abroad.
Although the testing pressures of Gaokao, as well as a life-long commitment to high grades and marks in school, are extreme as possible for Chinese youth, I have noticed if we as educators can prepare lessons and restructure certain aspects of the classroom and get students genuinely interested in how fascinating the world really is, their own initiative about studying English naturally emerges. Creativity and a cross-curricular approach have cultivated creative thinking with Chinese students in my classroom. ESL and TEFL teachers working under and with China’s education system have already begun this process by their mere presence in the classroom and by openly sharing their various cultures and backgrounds with their students. It has definitely fostered a diversity and creativity of thought and assuredly brings something special into Chinese schools, not only for the students, but for the community as a whole.
Part 3 coming soon