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Thoughts on Schooling: China and the United States

December 27, 2011

First day of school, Beijing

Just ordinary children

By Elaine Wang

When we came to China 3 months ago, I knew our kids would have a different kind of education from the US.  three months later, that assumption has become a reality.

First, the obvious difference is that teachers here do not praise kids often ( actually, so far, not at all).  Unlike in the US where teachers often told me how my kids are the brightest and cutest, teachers here only communicate with me about my kids’ academic shortcomings. I actually like the fact that they pinpoint the issue to me clearly without much “smooching around” like what teachers in the US often did. I am also amazed at how promptly they respond to the issue they discover about each student. In the US, teachers often communicate with parents only if the student is far behind the rest of the class. Here in china, teachers communicate with parents before the “problem” becomes significant. It almost seems to me that teachers in the US see mentioning anything negative about the student as an educational mistake, something against their principle.  Teachers in China, on the other hand, do not have that disposition.

Another major difference is the role of parents. In the urban setting public school where my kids attended in the US, parents were everywhere. They were organizing fundraising events; helping with school budgets; volunteering at all sorts of school events; keeping an eye on children during lunch recess. Here in China, parents do not come to school unless there is a specific reason. On a typical day, there is not a single parent on site.  The only event where I was invited as a parent was a Sports Day event where kids played sports related games. Even then, the whole thing was organized by teachers and parents were invited simply to watch their children participate in the activities.  One time, I stopped by the school thinking that I could talk to the teacher during recess. I was stopped at the door by the security and the guard had to call the teacher to let me in. The teacher was surprised that I stopped by and immediately I realized parents do not just pop in to their kids’ school like in the US.  Interestingly, my kids’ teachers are extremely responsive to my phone calls and text messages. They always respond within half an hour.  So the truth is that communication between parents and teachers work quite well in China regarding the specific child.  The downside is that there is much less community building opportunity at the classroom level and the school level.

Another difference is that teachers in China do not hesitate to honor academic success in public. In my daughter’s homework assignment booklet, teachers often post the names of students who scored 90% or above. While they do not publicize names of students who do not do well, they often write notes such as “those who didn’t do well this time, please try harder!” or “many of you have not done your best lately, please catch up!”. Again, I just can’t imagine teachers doing this in the US while it is perfectly normal for Chinese teachers.

Academically, my 1st grade daughter has quickly adopted the Chinese way of Math learning. She is required to do about 60 addition or subtraction problems per day for homework assignment. At the beginning, she was using her fingers to count. By now, it has become an intuition and she can often finish the 60 problems within 15 minutes.  For Chinese, she has memorized all the chapters she learned so far and recite them voluntarily to me.  I noticed that she seems to enjoy the memorization process and often laughs and giggles while reciting what she learned.  It is not at all painful or robot-like as westerners might assume.  She also has learned the pinyin and can use it as a reading tool now.  While the Chinese immersion program my daughter was in discourages teaching pin-yin for fear of over-reliance on it, children in China are trained to internalize pin-yin by 1st grade so they can read on their own.

I have not formed a judgment as to which way of education is better. I am only noticing the differences. Intuitively, I feel children in China are less equipped to think on their own since so much emphasis is around conforming to certain rules and standards. On the other hand, it is almost liberating since social justice isn’t at all part of the school’s agenda comparing to the US and all kids are expected to do their best. It is eerie thinking back that wanting the best for one’s child can almost be perceived as selfish or shameful since so many other children are behind in the public school setting.  Instead of striving towards the best for all children, resources are devoted only to those who are falling below the curve in the US and children who do well often do not get any attention in the classrooms.  Here in China, all children are expected to achieve their very best without any room for negotiation.  One might think it’s too intense for children. From what I noticed though, my kids actually seem to enjoy the honest feedback they receive from their teachers around how they can do better.  They are no longer the best or brightest, instead, they are just ordinary children who go to school to learn every day. For now, that’s not so bad.

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You can read Elaine’s bilingual blog about the move from the US to China here.

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