Monday, January 17, 2011

Chinese School

I recently stumbled upon Chinese School (YouTube playlist), a revealing 5-part documentary series from the BBC about lives of students and teachers in the schools of China. It should be required viewing for anyone interested in education and education policy. The description from BBC reads:
Documentary series about the hopes and dreams of a group of children at three schools in rural China. This edition follows the children as they prepare for the biggest challenge of their lives.
AFAIK, the series can't be found online at BBC or at Amazon (the listing there says it's currently unavailable).

There are scenes in the series that will be familiar to anyone who has gone through the Chinese or Taiwanese educational system or have parents who went through either of those systems. Many scenes are sure to cause western viewers to cringe. Here's the first in the series.

Some quotes:
Headmaster of the high school: In Anhui Province, 560,000 students will take the exams but only 240,000 will gain places at University. Competition is fierce! You must shoulder your parent's expectations, the great trust of your school and the hopes of our Motherland!
The headmaster appeals to filial piety, civic responsibility, and patriotism to help keep the students motivated to learn/struggle through the material and redouble their efforts.
A top student Wuyufei: I'm not the cleverest but I do work really hard.
She may be modest or may just be saying it for the cameras, but it's a common attitude of many Chinese students, or at least of their parents, that diligence can overcome lack of intelligence (my translation of 勤能補拙).
The above top student's mother: I take food to her so she has more time to study. I've decided to take this year off work to cook for my daughter in the build up to the exams.
Narrator: Everyday Mrs. Wu cooks 2 meals and brings them to her daughter so that Wuyufei doesn't lose a moment of study time.
When even the time it takes to walk home to eat is seen as a competitive disadvantage, you can probably imagine how much time Chinese students spend studying. I wonder what happens to students whose parents can't afford to do that. Her achievement is definitely not typical (highest score in the entire province), I wonder if her life/experience is typical or an outlier even in China.

On other parts, you can see students spending 45 minutes at the start of each day just reading the material out loud to memorize the content. According to the narrator, it's the preferred method to know the content by heart.

Later in the episode in a meeting with parents the headmaster offer the following regarding his views about Gao Kao.
Headmaster: Many criticize the exam claiming that it strangles creativity and holds back the modernization of China. But at this moment in time, I think it's the fairest system we've got. As parents, you must take the pressure off the kids. If you put too much pressure on them they will fail their exam.
Be sure to check out the playlist link above to see the rest. It's an eye-opener.

For some perspectives on education in China and US, you may want to see Yong Zhao's blog. He was formerly a Professor of Education at Michigan State, now Associate Dean at University of Oregon.


  1. What a find! I watched the first two and skimmed the next few-- definitely brought back memories of my parents' stories and my year attending school in Taiwan. This is fascinating, particularly in the wake of all the recent Amy Chua fuss; thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm glad you found it interesting. I definitely remember the pressure I got from parents, and even from some relatives, about maintaining a good GPA and SAT score so I can get into a "good" college. I thought I had it tough, but the kids in the video are fighting for scarce opportunities. The pressure to deliver must be suffocating. I like how the headmaster urges the parents not to apply too much pressure. What do you do as a parent? The one child policy probably only adds to the problem.

    The closest comparison I have for the high school as portrayed in the documentary is Whitney High School in Cerritos (CA). The pressure to perform academically is huge. Many kids who attend that school are looking to get into Harvard, Princeton, Yale. Some even hire college admissions coach/counselor to help build a portfolio for college. For a peek inside Whitney, its history, its students, and its faculty, I recommend Edward Humes's "School of Dreams" I also found some of the comments/reviews in the Amazon page to be very insightful.

    I've also been collecting a few links regarding the Amy Chua article for a post. I'll be posting it in the next few days.