Chinese exam-driven Education

9781118487136_PCM2.pdf I just finished reading ‘Who’s afraid of the big bad dragon?’ by Dr. Yong Zhao. I definitely recommend that teachers and parents read this book. It is typical of the media to jump on “facts” or results, like the PISA education results that come out every 3 years, and mislead us all with a narrow view. I have heard the media often claim that Chinese students are “advanced” and “smarter”. Many of us have experienced/seen recent educational reforms that focus on standardised testing, increased accountability, national curriculums etc. to improve education and also catch-up or pass China’s PISA results.  Many teachers have been wary of these changes and there have been numerous criticisms against the Chinese system and PISA. Dr. Zhao’s book also makes these criticisms and he includes Chinese history and examples to better understand the culture that drives the Chinese education system, which ultimately is a centuries old system of social control. It is this system that discourages “free-spirited people” and this is what Dr. Zhao believes is needed to foster innovation in a nation.

One thing really surprised me in this book. It made me realise that I had not previously looked very closely at the recent economic and educational successes of China. Due to the authoritarian nature of the Chinese culture and the limited “good” jobs that are available (Government jobs), in the past decades there has been rampant cheating, bribery and falsification of research and low-quality patents in China. The book’s discussion about China’s low-quality patents and fraudulent research was eye-opening!

Dr. Zhao writes that “…only 10 percent of Chinese college graduates are found to be employable by multinational businesses”; he references the 2005 ‘China’s Looming Talent Shortage’ McKinsey & Company report. I think the main lesson here is that we should be hesitant about making sweeping educational changes based on PISA results which are inherently biased and narrow in focus. I can’t imagine any parent or teacher arguing that a massive focus on a few subjects, Math, Reading & Science, is a good thing for our kids or our future? The biggest issue in the Chinese education system appears to be the lack of creativity and innovation. As Dr. Zhao points out that their education system is employment-driven and not entrepreneur-driven. We need kids that are innovative and are helped to succeed in what they are good at individually. You don’t have to be a visionary to realise that our future will require innovative entrepreneurs that will help create new jobs; having our kids focus on excelling in narrow-focused exams will not result in an entrepreneurial culture.

Maybe standardised testing like Australia’s NAPLAN won’t go away but we should at least be treating it for what it is; a narrow-focused exam-based result that does not give us the whole story. Last year I was told to group (low, medium, high) new classes of students based on the information available; NAPLAN and previous term English & Math results. I LOVE data and so I did this happily; however, I learned a very important lesson in doing this. There were a couple of “low” literacy students that created blogs and commented on my teaching website with what appeared to be very good literacy skills!!!  I talked to a couple of English teachers and they told me that these students were bored in English and did not enjoy the lessons and therefore did not try very hard. So just because a student’s data may appear “low” it may actually be that our curriculum is simply boring and un-authentic for them!

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