The View from Shanghai

A view of Shanghai’s education system from Shanghai.

News that Shanghai high school students top the global PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores has stunned many in the West.

In the United States, officials and news media were alarmed to see the growing power of China’s education system. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on US citizens to “wake up to this education reality.”

In the past year, US President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that the shorter school years in the US compared to South Korea and other countries, particularly in Asia, are a threat to the US’ future competitiveness.

A total of 5,115 Shanghai students from 152 schools took the two-hour PISA tests on April 17 last year, scoring the highest of all in reading, math and science, among some 70 mostly OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) economies. It was the first time that Chinese mainland students attended the PISA tests.

I am glad that the excessive praise for Shanghai students in the West has not sparked much excitement inside China. Though I salute the Shanghai students and teachers for their hard work, nevertheless I carry a strong feeling of bitterness.

For those who understand Shanghai or China’s education system today, it is really not surprising.

Like many Asian students, such as those in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea, who also did well in the PISA tests, after nine years of intensive training in a test-oriented school system, the 15-year-olds in Shanghai are professional test-takers.

In fact, the tests in the subsequent two years leading up to the national college entrance exam would be much more rigorous, making them real test machines.

However, the making of superb test-takers comes at a high cost, often killing much of, if not all, the joy of childhood.

Starting at kindergarten age, most Shanghai children are organized by their parents to attend after-school and weekend classes from math to English. As their school bags and homework loads get heavier, children have less time to play and sleep.

If you go to a Shanghai neighborhood after school or on weekend, you will find few children are playing. After-school classes and tons of homework require them to study endlessly late into the night.

In the New York neighborhood of Flushing, which has a very large Chinese community, the feeling is much the same. Of the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of children playing in the dozens of sports fields in Flushing Meadows after school or on weekends, few are Chinese.

Shanghai children today have better nutrition and much higher living standards, yet their childhood, dominated by tests and classes, is often judged much less happier than that of their parents, who grew up under an economy of scarcity.

As people in the US admire Shanghai students for their superb performance in the PISA tests, to many in Shanghai, “great test-takers” has become an ironic term, referring to students who excel in tests but lack imagination and creativity.

How can you be imaginative and creative when all you are asked to do is to memorize what the teachers and textbooks say, when you are told there is only one correct answer to a question, and when teachers don’t enjoy being challenged?

Critical thinking, unfortunately, has never been part of the Chinese school curriculum.

That is probably why when opportunity comes, an increasing number of Chinese parents refuse to conspire and collaborate with the country’s education system. Instead, they send their children to study abroad.

Arriving in the US, the Chinese students often marvel at how American schools encourage students to think outside the box, to ask questions and challenge the teachers. The ability to think critically from an early age is essential to the success of a person’s success in later study, career and life. That could be a key factor in why the US leads China in innovations by such a big margin.

The halo over the PISA tests of the Shanghai 15-year-olds should not hinder China’s efforts to revamp its test-oriented education system.

China’s growth will be sustained – and its future be hopeful – only when there is a generation who can think independently, critically and who can innovate. That will not be accomplished by people who are trained to be test machines.

China Daily

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