A Typical Lesson in a Chinese School

I have been teaching in Chinese universities and middle schools for almost 4 years now as well as having observed classes at all levels in China’s educational system. So forget what you’ve read lately about China’s schools rating number one in the world, the educational system here is full of problems. Over these next few days I’ll be outlining some of the major problems with the system as well as presenting a shocking exposé of what may be the worst school in China.

I can already hear angry readers scrolling down to leave a nasty comment, so I think we should start by looking at a few things that they do very well before we look at the limits of such a system.

There are a few top schools in China that are much different from what I am describing below, but I would say that this description would be accurate for about 90+% of China’s schools. I have worked in rural schools, as well as in Chengdu (a large city in Western China) and currently am in a large City on the East coast. There are differences in the amount of content that is covered, but I would say that the method is largely the same throughout.

A typical English class with a Chinese teacher would include a list of 30-40 new vocabulary words, reading dialogues and listening to the teacher explain 4-5 new grammar patterns (this part would be in Chinese). Through most of the class the students are either reading along with the teacher, or scrawling notes in the margin of their textbooks.

I described an English class because that is what I am most familiar with, but it’s actually not too different from what a Chinese class, math class, or even art class might look like. The teacher lectures, and the students simply follow along, until they are prompted to give a correct answer.

This system excels at creating students who are capable of memorizing massive amounts of information. I was shocked to find that my students who could hardly reply to “What did you have for lunch today?” were able to recite an entire paragraph from memory after just a few minutes of looking at the text.

The same applies to mathematics, the teacher will have them memorize the steps for solving the problem, and they will be able to plug-in almost any numbers and find the correct answers. Or I’ve heard that art classes are simply making the same picture as the teacher, brush stroke by brush stroke.

The Chinese education system has changed little from the days of the Confucian exams, when students would memorize thousands of pages of text and be tested on their ability to recall specific paragraphs.  So it’s not surprising that when these students sit down to a standardized test they are capable of very high scores.

This system is incredibly effective at providing a basic level of education to a massive population, but leaves little room for creativity in the Chinese classroom, which is tomorrow’s topic.

55 responses to “A Typical Lesson in a Chinese School”

  1. Chopstik says:

    At what level of teaching? High school? Middle school? Elementary? University level? In the countryside or in the cities? I think there may be some significant differences here that may or may not apply to a majority of schools. I do agree that more emphasis is placed on rote memorization rather “learning” as we think of it in the Western sense but that does not necessarily deny a proper education, so to speak.

    Personally, I might be more worried by the rampant cheating that is becoming increasingly epidemic – particularly at the higher levels of education.

    • Tom says:

      I edited the post and think I addressed most of the questions, thanks for pointing those out. I will be addressing the rest of those questions over the next couple of days, cheating will probably be worthy of a whole post.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Two comments, one pertaining to university education and the other to primary school education, specifically 6,7,8 years old children.
    1. A friend works at Napier University, Edinburgh, Scotland. She says there are many Chinese students studying at Napier. I expected her to say how studious they were. Instead she said that most struggle with the Western style of teaching as they are used to learning by rote.
    2. The North East of Scotland county where I live, has some schools twinned with schools in Tianjin. Recently a large party of Chinese school teachers from the Tianjin schools arrived here on a work experience trip. A very nice woman teacher visited a local primary school and taught class to 6,7,8 years old kids. The kids had been primed for her visit and were full of questions. The poor women could not handle it. Her carefully prepared flash cards were redundant. Kids moved about! Kids wanted to know if she was married and did she wear a red dress! etc. etc. My colleague observing this was full of pity for the poor teacher – apparently she was exhausted by the end of the session.

    • Tom says:

      oh how the students struggle with Western education. Tomorrow I’ll be looking more at what happens when you ask them questions that require them to do more than spit back what they read in the book.
      I think that an important thing to remember is that the Chinese students that go abroad are coming from some of the richest and brightest families in China, and they aren’t necessarily a representative sample. I’ve definitely come across dozens of eager students here that are hungry to learn.

      • Bill Rich says:

        Chinese students, with a few exceptions, mostly children of rich or powerful parents who do not expect to need knowledge or skill to get a good job, are all willing to learn, given the chance. The difficult part is to make them realize that they don’t have to give correct answers every time, and some times there are no such thing as a correct answer. If they realize that what they can read from the text book is not enough for passing the exam, they will learn it the “western” way.

        I had a few Chinese students went abroad, and I had some difficult time to make them realize that memorizing won’t work in my class, and knowing why you do things the way you did matters.

      • Tom says:

        Great point on this one Bill. It is very hard for Chinese students to adapt when they study overseas.

      • Kev says:

        Sorry Tom, did you say “brightest”? I agree with the richest or perhaps wealthy part. From my experience with chinese students applying to western schools, it all comes down to paying an agent who will write essays for you, falsify educational qualifications and anything else they can do to meet the objective. That’s why most of the Chinese students who get to Western schools are dismal. Even in their own country, their families buy them into the best schools even though their child is as dumb as a Chimp.

  3. Tom says:

    This confirms the account in this link, however the solution to the problem is revealed.


  4. john book says:

    Ah, the stories I could tell you about education in Japan!! In general, if parents have any money, (or if they would like to have any money), everything will be done for the kid, male, to get him into the very best pre-school, kindergarten, grade-school, etc… The idea is that the son will be taking care of mom and dad in the future so parents want the kid in the best job possible with the most money, so, he MUST attend only the very best schools at each level that’s possible
    Moms will sleep with sonny or his teachers; to keep the kid from being frustrated or depressed by girl-friends, (nothing must distract the boy!), or to make sure the teacher gives a good report of grades for the kid. These moms are called education mothers!

    So, as the boy gets older he must study harder and harder to make sure he excells enough to continue getting into the better and better schools. By high school, the kid is nearing zombie-hood. First regular school day, then cram school for several hours, then home work until 1 or 2 AM. There is little goof-off time, unless you count the train ride time between schools and home.

    Around the western holidays, high school boys can get into good hotels with their girl friends and have a day or two or pre-nuptial bliss…..

    Then there are the dreaded university entrance exams!!!! The kid studies like he’s on fire! This is one place Japan’s suicide rate grows. Often, if the kid doesn’t get the best grades so he can enter one of Japan’s 5 best colleges, suicide is his only perceived route.

    Then you have the successful kid. He’s made it to university where he spends most of his time partying, playing and have lots and lots of sex. This is 4 years of pretty much rest and relaxation after the prior 12 or 13 years of study-hell. University time is not much on studies as potential future employers do not want new employees trained and ready to go to work. The companies believe each new hire from university must be trained in the way the company wishes him to go. He will then fit the companies’ mold… no the university’s.

    This is the way to become a salary man. Most Japanese men then have their noses to the company grind-stone 6 days a week…some still 7. They had the 4 year college fun years as their reward for being good little students…. and then a life of exerting himself making the most money possible with little relaxation of any sort… unless it’s golf on Sunday with some of his office buddies or girl-friends on Friday nights.

    Getting a government job at any level is most preferred….teaching is included in government jobs. Civil servant get some of the best pay, and most benifits and life-long jobs with great retirement. This is only changing a little with the new world economy.

    This is one story…. there are others, but this one is probably the most common. By the way… I do not wish to imply that all mom’s are “education mothers”. But it seems like the more money the family has… the more this is part of the picture. Anything to keep the boy’s mind on school!

    • Tom says:

      It doesn’t sound completely different, but I sure hope Chinese mothers never start sleeping with their sons.

  5. NiubiCowboy says:

    I should say that I’m a long-time lurker of your site and this is the first post I’ve made in response to one of your articles. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your posts! They’re thoughtful, well-researched, and extremely reflective. The conclusions you have reached on many issues during your stay in China often reflect what I myself felt when I lived in China, albeit more well written than my own would be, haha. Anyway, keep up the good work!

    Your mention of art classes remind me of my personal experience at my old place of work. Although the students at the kindergarten where I taught had a formal art class, I often watched the teachers in each classroom guide their students through art activities that involved drawing something in response to a lesson they had just had, in English or in Chinese. Before I observed the process, I noticed that the artwork from each class looked eerily similar, as if the the teachers had drawn it themselves. When I went to observe one of these art lessons, I watched as any deviation from what the teacher expected the students to draw was literally erased. “This isn’t pretty,” erase erase erase, “Flowers should look like this!” “People don’t look like that,” erase erase erase, “Here, use prettier colors and make it look better.” The classroom became something akin to an assembly line as any sign of the students’ perspectives and individuality was destroyed and replaced with something that someone else approved of. Even the principal at the school joined in in criticizing our students’ work!

    During Halloween we had decorated a wall in the school with ghost cut-outs that each student had personally colored and designed. However, once the principal saw what our students had created she dismissed them and ordered us to remove them and throw them away because “they aren’t pretty.” To improve the wall, she had the teachers stay after school and color ghosts the way the principal wanted them to be colored and even had the teachers write the names of the students on them to give the impression that the students had done these things themselves.

    The teachers’ willingness to complete or correct the students even penetrated their English lessons. At the first sign of a misspoken word, misplaced adjective, or any hesitancy in providing a response to a question I had asked, the teacher would immediately answer the question for the child and scold them for not knowing the answer or responding quickly enough. Over time, I found that the results of this tactic led to either (a) the robotic production of English sentences and phrases that had been carefully memorized and practiced, but left little room to respond to spoken language for which they hadn’t been prepared or (b), a total shut-down during exposure to English in which the student would simply refuse to respond for fear that he might answer “incorrectly” and be scolded. The children I always appreciated the most were those who, even at a young age, understood the dynamic, infinitely creative nature of language and dove head-first into it, “mistakes” be damned. To these students it was important to communicate rather than to be “correct.” I’ll always remember a little boy who had accidentally been hit by another student’s chair as they re-arranged themselves in the classroom. The student got my attention and was able to communicate to me what happened despite a limited English vocabulary and without resorting to Chinese. He said, “Cowboy, she…chair boom me…no sorry.” I repeated back to him, “She hit you with the chair and didn’t say sorry?” to give him some positive input, to which he nodded. Unfortunately, many of the students who communicated in such a way were scolded for speaking “bad English,” or, as they erroneously claimed, “Chinglish.”

    • Tom says:

      Excellent addition Cowboy. I have seen this myself too, it’s pretty amazing that these patterns in education are really straight through the system, from kindergarten through university.

  6. Chopstik says:

    I showed this post to a former teacher in China and she took offense to the tone of it. As she pointed out, not all teachers are this way nor is everything necessarily done by rote. There is some degree of creativity and latitude though it often does depend on the school, principal and teacher. At least in her experience, she felt that you were overly negative and critical in your assessment. I will add that her experience was in teaching elementary-age children in a public school as well as a stint in a private boarding school. Neither experience was as you’ve described.

    And I’ve seen her instruction method and it is not as you have described in your post – but that doesn’t mean she may not be the exception rather than the rule.

    • Tom says:

      She may not agree with my assessment, but it matters to a huge degree where she was teaching. On the East Coast they are starting to move away from this model. However I have visited several schools throughout China, and am part of a large group of foreign teachers who have all told similar stories to this from dozens of different schools. I would agree that not everything is done by rote, but I would also say that rote learning is still the majority of what is done. English, art, math, writing have all been taught as I described in the 3 universities, and one middle school I have worked in.
      I would guess that she is probably one of the exceptions. Again, like I said in the post this reflects about 90% of Chinese schools. Also that my argument is critical of the system, and not the teachers, as they are expected to follow this model, and different approaches aren’t usually rewarded.
      I would appreciate some examples of the creativity and latitude given to students in her school.

      • Kev says:

        Nice response, Tom. Teachers here, in general, are considered rubbish if they don’t stick carefully to the text they are teaching. A good teacher here will help all students learn (by rote) every past test question and suitable answer. High Schools heavily recruit the highest scoring Middle school students and for the right price will accept a couple of the dumber students if there the parent is powerful enough.

  7. George says:

    I think this is not a case of “educational problem” but rather a case of “cultural difference”. Unable to answer “what did you have for lunch” is not a problem caused by rote memorization, but weak listening skills caused by a lack of opportunity to speak English. Chinese math textbooks are more often much more terse than equivalent English texts. But ask a Chinese student to explain to you why particular methods and equations are used, you will find that it is far from the case of “learning to plug numbers in”. You will find Chinese people are terse in general for given interactions. Yet at the same time they spend vast amount of discussion on frivolous things. those are cultural differences, yet in our eyes they are perceived as lack of imagination.

    • Tom says:

      Thank you for helping me prove my point. You argue that this is not a problem of rote memorization but is due to weak listening skills. Why do they have weak listening skills? Because there is too much focus on rote memorization of dialogs and role plays. There are few moments in a typical class where the students don’t have a text in front of them or on the screen. (I have studied Chinese and Spanish in the US, in both cases I had few opportunities outside of class to speak with native speakers. Please don’t respond by telling me that China doesn’t have enough native speakers.)
      Ask a Chinese student, “how are you?” Nearly 100% of the time the answer is “I’m fine thank you, and you?” Now either an abnormal % of the population is fine, or that they have memorized dialogs and conversations. Try saying, “I’m having a great day. How are you?” and again most of the time they will say “I’m fine thank you and you?”
      The next post will be looking at creative thinking, and I think it goes beyond cultural differences.

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  9. Samuel says:

    Yeah teacher-talk-time may be the majority in China, from the primary school even to courses for adults. And I am so worry about my daughter’s English learning that she cannot use English as a native speaker in future day, although she’s in a good local public school, where Look, listen and learn is another text book. Actually she loves the western teaching style after she have taken an interacting English activities with myself. But in a one child family home educating with interaction is a big challenge.

    • Bill Rich says:

      Sounds like you are a Chinese parent. Try speak English with your daughter, especially when you play with her. You do play with her, don’t you ? This will do you both good. Acting out some stories like a play would help too. Singing in English does wonders to help you understand and speak the language.

      • Samuel says:

        Thank you for your suggestion and we’re trying on that. Also I cannot agree with you more on the 726th comment that

        , and I myself keep avoiding to make my child just say yes/no whilst educating at home. But that will be a dilemma for a young child to survive in such a teaching system if he or she doesn’t rote everything in the text book or from the teachers. And many of us parents know the Chinese way already kills the kids’ willing to learn and create. It sounds that home education is the only hope to connect our children to the Western learning style. Therefore I have been trying to elicit my daughter activities in English and Chinese language subject.

  10. john book says:

    Yup…what I left out of my earlier post; Japan has the same, “I’m fine thank you”, rote memorizing. This holds true in most of their classes. Also the day I brought in the word, “emotion” to one of my classes…the kids were shocked that you could vary their tones when they spoke English. The administration thought I was teaching riot class!

  11. […] I have been teaching in Chinese universities and middle schools for almost 4 years now as well as having observed classes at all levels in China’s educational system. So forget what you’ve read lately about China’s schools rating number one … Continue reading → […]

  12. Bill Rich says:

    If you want to compare Chinese schools with schools of other countries, and you want to avoid hurting the feeling of Chinese people, you must compare the one single best school of China with the worst in the world, because otherwise, it won’t be a fair comparison, in the eyes of Chinese people.

    • Chopstik says:

      That is a very wide brush that you are using. There are many Chinese who realize there is an issue but are unaware of how best to break the cycle because it is so entrenched (for whatever reason).

      Interesting side-note, am reading a biography of Mao at the moment and I can trace many of the problems today to decisions/thoughts/actions he took as many as 70 years ago. It’s rather frightening, really…

      • Bill Rich says:

        The most important decision Mao had made was switching from insisting on democracy and human rights for Chinese, to a one party system with the Communist Party ruling in perpetuity. This decision doomed the Communist Party to focus on maintaining the regime rather than looking after the well being of Chinese people.

      • Kev says:

        Most Chinese people who are aware of the problem sit on their asses and blog about it rather than actively try even the simplest things to make a small difference. They sit and bitch about the government while ignoring their own disgraceful behavior. Try looking at Chinese behavior before Mao. They were stabbing eachother in the back and crapping on eachother before. Things were just as shitty before Mao as after. I pity anyone who tries to get China to unify and work together. I’d issue everyone in the country with a gun and take a holiday for a month. I’m sure that after that time the ones that are left would be easier to govern.

    • Tom says:

      After talking with several of my Chinese co-workers and former co-teachers, people in China understand that their education system is failing. Anyone with the money to do so is considering sending their children abroad. I think I might only be hurting the feelings of the education bureau.

      • Samuel says:

        Students who accumulate debating or interacting skill may improve themselves enormously, and one day they will change this old country. I think the traditional education system is not ready for it yet. How to evaluate its success? Academic score is still the key factor to choose the best ones from primary school to university in China.

      • Tom says:

        Thank you for your comments Samuel. It’s always good to have more perspectives on this blog. My advice would be to try and engage your child in creative types of education, which you may have to lead. In the West we like to choose art and music for this, and it may take some unlearning on your daughter’s part. For example in art you could ask her to draw something you know her teachers would not have asked for, like paint happiness. Or in music, ask her to play something that elicits a feeling, or given her age, sounds good to her. These open ended activities might be a good start in trying to develop independent thinking skills.
        For her learning English, I’m not sure what level she is at, but consider trying some improvisation activities (which should be found freely on the web). Anything that is unclear what the answer is, is probably useful.
        You can also do writing activities that use “or” questions that have actual results/consequences. Would you like to go to the zoo or the aquarium? then have her write a short response and then actually take the trip (Then at the zoo or aquarium you have a whole different kind of english learning experience). The goal I think with home education is to make learning something that can be enjoyed, and many parents have replaced that joy with rote activities.
        I hope these suggestions are helpful.

  13. Greg says:

    Oh how true about ‘how are you”. I try to explain to my students that if you are not OK, then say so. For example, I tell them that if you are asked, How are you? and if you are tired,hungry,hot cold,have a toothache or whatever, tell the person who asked you the question exactly how you feel. Hmmm this did and still does leave them somewhat confused. Why? Thats easy, their Chinese English teachers never teach them enough vocab to explain their emotions or wellbeing. So, I make a point using flash cards to explain all the different expressions to do with ones-self. It works, mind you I have to repeat this at the start of each lesson for a few weeks until it’s firmly entrenced into their vocab.

  14. Samuel says:

    Alright, Tom. Your helpful ideas here are the points I’ve never heard from any foreigners. And I could not wait more to answer you before Great Fire Wall rises up and wordpress.com is going to be blocked again. I would like to put that I agree to those three techniques you mentioned, which have already brightened the fathers like me. Actually these few days I’m sharing your opinions and all the comments under this blog with my girl, trying to make her know what it should be in Western education and learning. Please keep blogging on Chinese culture and wake them up.

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  19. XYZ says:

    You must have never stepped foot in a US university level physics or, best of all, biology class. I’m disappointed. Another failed liberal arts major commenting on what’s the “problem” with Chinese education. Anyone with any sort of scientific and engineering background knows the key to success, and it ain’t playful “creativeness”. It’s sitting down with the book and grinding thousands of problems and spending hundreds of hours in the lab.

    • Tom says:

      I hate to point this out, but aren’t you studying in an American university? So clearly there was some reason that you chose to study in the US rather than in China (I’m assuming you are Chinese). Care to elaborate on your reasoning?

    • Old Cow says:

      I am also interested to hear your response.

    • Axelle says:

      Sure, because we all know that what makes a good scientific is their abilities to follow a very narrow line of thinking and to crunch numbers… These people may be trained as scientifics I doubt very much they are good ones.
      “Playful creativeness” as you so demeaningly called it is the ability to think out of the box and is of utmost importance to anyone, let alone scientifics.
      If you are only able to follow tracks already trodden before you, what good will bring to your field?
      On another matter, I fail to see the relationship between being a “failed liberal arts major” and the critics of the Chinese educational system. I am currently an oral English teacher hired by a university in Western China, supposedly first class, according to their ranking scale. I too have noticed the shortcomings Tom is pointing out and I got my master’s with first-class honours. I guess that doesn’t exactly make me a “failed liberal arts major” and I’m sure Tom is neither.

    • Kev says:

      Why in hell’s name would you bother spending hundreds of hours in a lab if all you had to do is “grind out thousands of problems” using good ol’ fashioned rote learning? Oh Oh Oh…I know this one… because there are anomolies in every branch of science or did they forget to tell you this, XYZ. That’s probably why they they give groups the name “Think Tank” instead of “Look up the answer in the back of the book Tank” or “Know Tank”. err…errr…I’m a physicist….der…what’s an hypothesis?…Any theories, people…..yuk yuk yuk

    • Anonymous says:

      Anyone with any sort of scientific and engineering background knows that sitting down with the book and grinding hundreds of problems is necessary but not sufficient. Work (i.e. grinding down) AND creativity are necessary and sufficient.
      In order to excel you need both.

  20. Old Cow says:

    I too would be interested.

  21. Biology says:

    As a Biology major from an American liberal arts college now teaching in China, I do have to admit that some of our lower-level required courses were depressingly similar to their Chinese counterparts. I audited a few Cell Bio classes in China*, and not only did the Chinese professor use the same diagrams as our American prof and lecture the same way, but she showed the same cartoon joke at the end of class (I was the only one that laughed – nobody else could understand the English).

    However, I still think that American Biology courses encourage creative thought and applicable research and innovation skills, whereas Chinese courses encourage strict memorization and drum in that there is Always A Right Answer – a problematic mindset for budding researchers.

    1. My Cell Bio prof was considered one of the worst in the department due to her dry lecture style and dearth of student participation. But it IS POSSIBLE to teach practical bio skills quite apart from rote memorization; it’s just much harder. My Chinese med student friends, and even research grad students, had never taken a class that wasn’t just rote memorization.
    Many other bio courses at my American school were heavily grounded in research literature, and every lab course required us to eventually create a semi-independent project, where we elegantly solved a problem using our content knowledge and logic, or else resorted to sweaty trial-and-error. The corresponding Chinese lab courses stayed at the numbered-list-of-tasks level.

    2. The American Cell Biology course still involved a few open-ended assignments, such as a genetic testing medical ethics debate and an independent research paper, which the Chinese counterpart lacked completely. The separate medical ethics course I attended in China was entirely lecture-based, although it involved weekly written responses to a problem. Most students copied each other.

    This is anecdotal, but I taught post-grad medical students last year, and they had an ELECTIVE called “Journal Research” where the professor would GIVE THEM a stack of articles and they had to synthesize them. There was always a right answer, they said. They never learned how to search for background info by themselves.

    3. Our exam was teacher-written and obviously couldn’t cover everything she taught in class; she told us to focus on the “key points,” which, in general, we correctly identified. High-stakes problems asked us to analyze a situation and explain pathways and draw logical inferences.

    My Chinese Cell Bio students? Showed me a little paperback book and said that they just had to memorize that whole thing for the final. It was the entire question bank for the standardized (but always different) exam for the course. THEY MEMORIZED IT ALL right before the exam (while ditching my Oral English class) and then, just as quickly, forgot it.

    * Also, while my school in America was more prestigious than the school in China, that was still the second-best medical school in that province – not exactly chopped liver.

  22. Hi Tom,

    I very much enjoyed your post! I’ve been a teacher of English for almost 2 years in Shanghai and I agree: there are a number of problems in the CH educational system. In my case however, what bothers me is how they imagine I teach English at this primary school. Since the other foreign teacher left the 2nd week of September, I’ve been given his classes on top of mine so now I teach altogether 630 students per week in 21 different classes. If this is not mind-blowing enough, they also told me not to attempt to do anything serious (i.e. not even “robotic sentences” nor new vocabulary) since the Chinese teachers will teach that. Instead I should just play games (hangman), sing songs, draw pictures, and under no circumstances should I discipline them. Practically, I am to do some kindergarten stuff with 12 year olds. I think it’s sad as I’m a qualified teacher who wanted to do a good job and actually teach something useful to these bunch of kids. On the flip side, I do try to make it fun for them. These kids study 12 hours a day and have very little time to switch off and forget about the massive competition that awaits them at entrance exams etc. The last thing they need is more pressure from a foreign English teacher who they see for 40 minutes per week.

  23. Again, I’m worried that this is rather one-sided. I’ve read a couple of your posts now, and you seem anxious that China become more American, but I think at the expense of glossing over the potential advantages of their own methods.

    I’m coming from a PhD program in America in philosophy, so I have some experience with the American public education system as a TA, and I also attended a liberal arts college. Now one thing that was great about a liberal arts college and is worth emulating is that we got a chance to have lots of conferences where students were encouraged to formulate and discuss their own opinions on difficult and interesting texts. This is something worthwhile and from what I know of China as well as your description, probably lacking. On the other hand, university education here consists largely of lectures to groups of at least 30 and in higher level courses many more students. There are discussion sections, but it is only too easy for these to devolve into supplementary lectures. And we try to give students opportunities to express their own opinion in written work, but this ends up devolving into a more or less rehashed version of the professors’ lectures. I did not generally feel like the majority of the students were really getting or engaging with the material we taught them — and I thought it was our fault more than theirs.

    ON THE OTHER HAND, I do envy the ability of the students you describe to memorize large chunks of material, and I think this is a much more valuable skill than you recognize in this post. In order to think creatively, you have first to have a database of material in hand to manipulate. I think a failing of our own education system is that there’s so much emphasis on so-called critical thinking that we end up with very little to think critically about. To have command of a classic text to the point where you can quote whole passages from memory seems to me very valuable, especially in scholarship when you need to know exactly what is in the text and where to find citations in support of your points.

    Finally, I think that in our own education system, at the higher levels, we still to an extent rely simply on being able to cite authorities and to repeat what respected professors in the field think with minor variations.

    So I guess the take-away from this long comment is that our education system has its own shortcomings, even when we evaluate it by the standards that interest you — and that rote learning also has its place in education, and is something we concentrate on perhaps too little (or with too little effect) in America.

    Finally a note on the calligraphy class — I read once that Chinese calligraphers spent a great deal of time trying to imitate the style of masters and were judged on how closely they matched them. So this also seems a cultural point. And when Chinese considered themselves to be superior in calligraphy, it was because they had matched one of the classical masters, not because they had taken things in a new direction.

    So here is another point I often here as to cultural differences between China and America. China is (or was) a country that looked back and saw the past as an ideal that had passed away (forgive the pun) and had to be revived. (Hesiod in Greece thought this way too, and I suppose American conservatives think this way to a certain extent.) But our culture is a culture which is obsessed with progress — if thinks are staying the same, or if they are still like they were, then that’s stagnation — we always have to go forward.

    So if someone believes that the best has only been achieved and the point is maintain it, what would be the value of creativity? Creativity would result in *novae res*, which would almost certainly be a decline (since there is a single right way to do things and it is already here). The other value of course is individualism — that we all have to find our own way to do things.

    So if you say that in education China should strive for individualism and innovation, you are committed to defending these as ideals. And then this is why I suppose I’m not very keen on your analysis, because I am not for the moment (but give me a year in China) so enthralled with individualism and innovation as you may be.

  24. O. Bing says:

    In many US art classes people copy works of masters and copy techniques from teachers before making their own art and applying the techniques to their own art

    How would Chinese K-12 and university art classes differ from that model?

  25. O. Bing says:

    I meant U.S. university art classes, not primary school art classes

  26. Kieran says:

    all the time i used to read smaller posts that as well clear their motive, and that is also happening
    with this post which I am reading at this place.

  27. BW says:

    My daughter, then 7yo, spent a summer in a Chinese summer art program (we were expats in China) … yes, all the students did exactly the same artwork (pastel drawings), but she learned about colour composition and how exactly to draw a helicopter (for example). Sometimes rote work is necessary … but yes, having spent my own time teaching in a Chinese kindergarten (I ran an “international class” preschool/kindy run as per NAmerican ways, I saw the other teachers and they too did all the artwork displayed. Oh, and the corporal punishment was horrible 🙁

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