Book Review: Chinese Education

For a course I took this summer online from Oregon State University, I was given a choice of several books to read and write a report about.  I chose Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Yong Zhao, simply because it left me curious–what did a Chinese have to say about the Chinese education system that I didn’t know?

Chinese education was designed for one, specific purpose

China’s education system is built on high-stakes exams.  The idea, and a very good one on the part of the ruling power, was that China would teach its people that the only means of social mobility was through education–as touted by Confucius.  Examination tests were the only route to the only “esteemed” profession, that of working for the government.  By creating a single route to “success”, and a very narrow way for anyone to be able to follow this path upward, the ruling power was able to strictly control those who made it into their ranks.  These high-stakes exams would be based around specific knowledge and skills that the ruling power wanted everyone to know and accept.  Thus, they could control the masses.  So it continues today, in the high stakes exams, and the strictly competitive environment that children are born into in Confucian-based societies such as China, Japan, and South Korea.

The Chinese educational system, despite being touted by many as highly successful, is in fact, a farce

There are numerous examples of outright cheating, of bribery, and of corruption.  Which is ripe to happen in such a high-stakes environment.  People will do what it takes to be successful, will stoop to nothing if it advances their future and that of their children.  Truly, anywhere there are high stakes or high rewards, there are high levels of corruption.  And China is no exception.  In addition to cheating, bribery, and corruption on the actual tests, many students are looking to obtain patents or publish academic articles in order to up their chances of acceptance into a better university.  So what do they do?  They obtain patents for nonsense pieces of garbage–useless items that will never be commercially viable.  Useless items that look good on paper.  Ditto for academic articles.  Pay off the right person, and you can get yours published.  But in the end, it lowers the quality of all such “products” of advanced education across China.  Just as Zhao says, a farce.

The PISA far oversteps its reach

Zhao makes a very valid point and that is that, how can you even quantify the “best” education system in the world?  How can you reduce something as complex, as abstract as education into a number, let alone three?  The PISA test isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  It has large gaping holes in its veracity, let alone its ability to speak for an entire education system.  How can you quantify educational quality?  The answer, you can’t.  And neither can the PISA.

Finally, the focus on high-stakes exams stifles creativity and innovation

Zhao points out that the product of such an environment is stifled creativity and innovation, the very 21st century skills that our children and students need most.  Those with different ideas or ways of learning are punished, made to work harder to fit the one-size-fits-all mold.  I’ve seen this while teaching in Korea.  There exists absolutely no accommodations for students with learning disabilities, let alone recognition that they even exist.  What is the result?  Frustrated, tired, exhausted students just trying to meet the status quo and working many times harder than their peers to get there.

Needless to say, it left me pondering the direction of modern education in the United States, and where exactly we are heading.  This text is positively littered with references to Zhao’s extensive research on the subject, lending validity to his varied claims.



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