China’s Education System, the Students, and the Foreign English Teacher

21 Jan

Most Westerners naturally assume that what they will encounter in China is a model of education that is more or less similar to their own, barring a few cultural differences: What they find instead is a unique amalgam of Confucian tradition and current political agenda interspersed with Western influence, and a population of students who face overwhelming academic demands, parental expectations, and fierce competition that are nearly impossible for any foreigner to fathom without having actually lived and taught here.

This overview of China’s educational system, related sociocultural and political dynamics, and how they impact upon the day-to-day lives of Chinese students was written as a foundation to better inform the first section of the guide: teaching English in China. It is organized across four main sections: historical antecedents; structure of the educational system; understanding the mind-set of Chinese students and, finally; the interplay between these factors and the role of the foreign English teacher in China. By reading this chapter, you will acquire a much better understanding of not only what you will encounter as a foreign teacher but why.

Historical Antecedents: Zhou Enlai’s Four Modernizations and Educational Reforms under Deng Xiaoping

In 1974, at the Fourth National People’s Congress, Premier Zhou Enlai—in what would be one of his last public acts just prior to his death two years later—introduced what are referred to as the Four Modernizations (sì gè xiàn dài huà). Following Zhou’s death, Deng Xiaoping assumed control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and, in December 1978, at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, Deng announced the official launch of these Four Modernizations, formally marking the beginning of the reform era. The Four Modernizations were in the fields of 1) agriculture, 2) industry, 3) technology, and 4) defense and were specifically intended to make China a great and self-reliant economic power by the early 21st century.

Shortly following the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, China reformed its educational system to explicitly achieve these Four Modernizations, which are viewed to this day as the underlying foundation of all its educational goals. Both the 6-3-3 system (six years of primary school, followed by three years each of junior and senior middle school) and the designation of “key schools” were restored (Surowski, 2000). Key schools are those that are intended to serve the most academically gifted and, on the secondary school level, are the equivalent of upscale Western college preparatory programs (or prep schools). At the post-secondary level, key national universities are those that are considered to be the most prestigious and are charged with awarding master’s and doctoral degrees to China’s educational elite. In all cases, key schools receive the lion’s share of public funding (especially Project 211 Universities). A province may also designate a university as a key school which simply means it is considered to be the most influential and prestigious at the provincial level.

What all of this means is that the best education in China is provided by public or government universities and the competition to obtain admission into these best schools is fierce and omnipresent. Related, and unlike in the West, private schools in China are generally regarded as an academically weaker (and far more expensive) alternative for students who could not earn admission into the better public schools, for those whose parents can afford it. The reality of this dual-system of education is something you should definitely bear in mind when applying for teaching jobs in China.

Structure of Education in China

As is true of most Western countries, the Chinese educational system consists of five tiers: kindergarten; primary (elementary) school; junior middle school; senior middle school, and; post-secondary or college/university. National entrance exams are required for admission into senior middle school (Zhong Kao exam) and university (Gao Kao exam; literally meaning “tall exam,” an informal abbreviation for China’s National College Entrance Exam, often explained—tongue-in-cheek—that it is so abbreviated because it looms so large in the lives of all Chinese).

Vocational schools exist at the senior middle school and post-secondary levels for those who do not score high enough on their respective admission exams. As is true in the United States, a typical bachelor’s degree can be earned from between four to six years, depending on major (for example, a bachelor’s degree in clinical medicine is a six-year program). All four-year degree conferring universities also offer a 3-year diploma alternative for students who either didn’t score well enough on the Gao Kao exam or didn’t pass the CET-4 (college English test, band-4 for non-English majors). In 1986, the Chinese government promulgated a 9-year compulsory education requirement, so all nationals must stay in school through the end of junior middle school. Table 1, below, provides a schematic representation of the educational system in China.

High Cost of Education in China

Although the cost of education in China is negligible by Western standards, when you consider the country’s GDP and the average national income, it weighs in as the most expensive educational system in the world. The typical cost of a university education in China is approximately 6,000 to 7,000 yuan per year (about $870 to $1015) in tuition (which also typically includes housing), and can increase to tens of thousands of yuan per year for special science and technology majors. These fees do not include the cost of food and books (Cai and Qi, 2006).

The problem here is that for the majority of families in China, these educational costs represent up to 60 percent of their annual household income, second only to their food budget. The annual expense of a college student is as high as a farmer’s total gross income over several years. Consequently, many universities in China have adopted an unofficial policy of demanding advanced payment for the first year’s tuition and then tolerating non-payment of tuition for the remaining three years until such time that the student wants or needs his or her diploma. In practice, most working class and poor families will borrow money for the first year’s tuition and then worry about borrowing the rest around the time their child is scheduled to graduate. Of course, not all families are able to raise the initial tuition monies in time and, subsequently, the implications of China’s relatively high cost of education are profound.

The social pressure on Chinese children to perform well in school is overwhelming: not only their futures, but the futures of their parents entirely depend on it. In fact, and particularly in light of China’s 1979 single-child policy, excellent performance in school is typically the only expectation that parents in China have of their child—and it has proven to be a formidable one. Basically, performance on the Zhong Kao (senior middle school) exam determines how much, if anything, the parents will have to pay to send their child to a key senior middle school. A recent study conducted by the Beijing Institute of Technology estimated that one fifth of all students enter these key senior middle schools by paying “sponsorship fees and school selection fees” (ibid), that is, they didn’t score well enough on the admission test to attend these schools on full subsidy, so parents who can afford to do so must incur some of the fees.

Related, senior middle school students who are to have any hope of either attending the best public universities in China or even selecting their own majors, must score at the very top of their classes. Those who don’t score high enough on the Gao Kao exam will have to attend a lower-tier school studying whatever major the university has selected for them and their futures will be quite uncertain. Students whose scores are low will have to attend a private university, assuming their families have the much higher tuition fees they typically charge for that luxury. It is not a coincidence that the leading cause of death for young people in China is suicide or that teachers are cautioned to carefully check for depression and withdrawn behavior after the results of these national exams are released.

Students who do not become overtly suicidal may, in another attempt at escape, become addicted to technology. It is currently estimated by the China Youth Association for Network Development that one out of ten Chinese aged 13 to 30-years old is addicted to the Internet, especially online gaming. That percentage is even higher among those presently attending university, students aged 18 to 23 years old, at 11.39% (People’s Daily, 2003). This addiction is so extensive, that some municipalities have even tried banning Internet cafés in an attempt at preventing what they view as a problem of epidemic proportions and the Sunshine Community Youth Affairs Center in Shanghai opened a halfway house for young Internet addicts in 2006.

In addition, mobile phone dependency is a major problem in China. Statistics show that nearly 160 million Chinese people among the total population of 1.3 billion own mobile phones, the highest proportion in the world (People’s Daily, 2003). In great part, mobile phones have become something of a status symbol in China and most students, from junior middle school through university, seem to have one irrespective of how poor their families may be. Sending and receiving text messages (SMS) has rapidly escalated into a national compulsion in China to the point where Chinese psychologists have reported classic withdrawal symptoms including agitation, excitability, and difficulty in concentration when mobile phone activity diminishes for an extended period of time.


A Typical Day in the Life of a Chinese Student

If I had to come up with just one word to describe a typical day in the life of a Chinese student, that word would be exhausting. They generally wake up around 6:30 to 7:00 in the morning and begin classes by 8:00 am. In many universities throughout China, classes begin as early as 7:40 in the morning. They will typically attend between four to five 40- to 50-minute periods in the morning, and as many as three to four 40- to 50-minute periods in the afternoon with a ten-minute break between each period. Primary and secondary schools usually close between 4:00 to 5:00 pm, and many of these students will then attend some extracurricular activity such as music lessons after school before returning home and commencing their homework. Universities also offer evening classes that typically end around 9:30 pm. Many schools, including universities, impose mandatory study halls in the late afternoon or evening hours, and attendance is taken by a faculty monitor. The amount of daily homework they receive tends to be massive and students report usually having to stay up until 11:00 pm to midnight in order to complete it. Children will often be severely punished by their parents if they are caught “wasting time” by engaging in recreational reading (quite unlike the reaction many American parents would have if they joyfully discovered that their children were reading anything other than the daily TV program listings).

The academic year in China runs on a two-semester system, fall and spring, beginning in early September and then sometime in late February or early March (depending on the lunar calendar), ranging between 20 to 22 weeks each in duration with a winter break for the Spring Festival and a summer break that usually comprises most of July and all of August. University students will enjoy up to six weeks (from the end of the fall semester’s final exams to the first day of classes in the spring).

The student workload in China is enormous and the typical university student generally has to attend as many as 18 classes per week over the course of the first three years of school. Then, during the fourth and final year (for those who are in four-year degree programs), their workload drops down to almost nothing and the students are typically required to write a practicum paper. It has been suggested that the principal reason students are disproportionately overburdened over the course of the first three years is so that universities can maximize their profitabilty, i.e., students are paying full tuition for the fourth year although very few faculty hours need to be allocated.

Teaching methodology basically consists of force-feeding copious amounts of required information directly out of textbooks (often teachers will simply read directly from the text) and students are discouraged from asking questions, particularly if those questions challenge ideology or anything regarded as factual. Teachers, including university faculty, mostly teach directly to the exams and “sample” questions are usually distributed (or former versions of the test are downloaded from the Internet) and the students are expected to memorize both the questions and the answers. In fact, the entire educational system is based predominantly (although not exclusively) on rote. Teachers receive bonuses for their students’ performance on these exams, so there is a great deal of pressure on them, as well as economic advantage, for their students to score particularly well on all tests.

Unlike anything you would ever witness in the West, students everywhere and of all ages can be observed reading small passages of text, then diverting their heads and eyes upward as they repeat to themselves out loud what has just been read in an attempt at memorizing the content. It takes a lot of getting used to. Consequently, as a direct result of their educational system, Chinese students—when compared to Westerners—have a great deal of trouble engaging in lateral (creative) and intuitive thinking (not to be confused with abstract and analytical thinking, which are different), i.e., Chinese students have difficulty “thinking outside the box”. If presented with the same material in a very different context, they will often not be able to deduce the correct answer. Conversely, and not surprisingly, their linear and analytical thinking are perhaps among the best in the world and the majority of students in many first-rate American graduate engineering and computer science programs are Chinese nationals.

At all levels of education, political indoctrination has been incorporated into the curricula. For example, all university students must take several political inculcation classes such as “General Introduction to Mao Zedong’s Thoughts.” Finally, all university freshmen (boys and girls) must participate in a several-week long military training program in which they are taught how to wear the uniform, stand at attention, march and work as a unit, and fire a rifle. Interestingly enough, many students look back at that military training with very fond memories and report it as a highly rewarding bonding experience.

Chinese Students and the Foreign English Teacher


It shouldn’t be difficult for you to anticipate the myriad of difficulties you may encounter as a foreign English teacher in China.

Perhaps you noticed that foreign languages, or even the humanities for that matter, are not among the list of Zhou Enlai’s Four Modernizations—the foundation that drives the educational system in China. Learning English in China is regarded primarily as a national requirement that no one takes nearly as seriously as they do the hard sciences and the fields of technology, industry, and agricultural science. Everyone in China knows that the best students get assigned to those highly desirable and relatively more lucrative disciplines, while the less fortunate must study foreign language or some other discipline in the humanities for four years (whether they have any interest in it or not). Try to imagine what it must be like, for example, to teach English to an “English major” who had desperately wanted to be nurse her entire life but didn’t score well enough on the college admission test to pursue her dream and, instead, had to study whatever major the university assigned to her. Further imagine that this girl’s hometown is a second-tier city where she plans to return after graduation and where virtually no one uses English on regular basis.

There are, of course, many exceptions to this. Some students are Western-bound (they plan to study or work abroad) or otherwise perceive a real need to acquire functional English language skills, and they will comprise your best and most motivated students. Others will simply be fascinated by the presence of a foreign teacher in the classroom and will seek to learn as much about your culture as they possibly can. A few more may just happen to be naturally gifted at acquiring foreign languages (mostly the girls) and will genuinely enjoy learning English.

One of the main tasks of the foreign English teacher in China is establishing meaningful and enduring relationships with one’s students. To be effective as an oral English teacher in China, you will need a great deal of patience and you will have to be the kind of person who is a self-starter and works well independently with very little need for feedback, approval, or support. You will have to find more satisfaction in being a mentor, a role model, and a friend than an educator—in the traditional Western sense of that word.

The Case of the “Broken” Refrigerator Drawer

A classic example of the types of difficulties many Chinese have with lateral thinking (i.e., the ability to look at a problem from many different, novel or creative angles instead of tackling it head-on in a linear fashion) can be illustrated with what is referred to as the “case of the ‘broken’ refrigerator drawer.”

A Chinese girl returns home from grocery shopping. After pouring a bag of loose potatoes into one of the refrigerator’s pullout drawers, she is unable to reclose it. For several minutes she repeatedly pulls out and then tries to push this drawer back in but to no avail. Finally, in utter frustration, she walks next door to the foreign teacher’s apartment to report that the refrigerator drawer was “broken.” The foreign teachers enters the kitchen, examines the refrigerator drawer (noticing the new pile of potatoes), pulls it back out and while trying to push it back in, realizes immediately that it was meeting with some resistance. The teacher then completely pulls out the drawer and removes a small potato that had fallen behind it a few minutes earlier. The “broken” drawer was now fixed.

The Chinese girl is terribly impressed with the foreign teacher’s problem-solving skills. She remarks repeatedly and for several minutes about “how clever” the foreign teacher is. From her perspective, the fact that the foreign teacher was able to so quickly discern that something was preventing the drawer from closing all the way was a mental feat worthy of Einstein, whereas, for most Westerners, it would be the very first thing we would consider.

This Chinese girl has an I.Q. of about 130, holds a bachelor’s degree from a very reputable Normal University, and has worked as the head accountant for a major international shoe company for several years. But her educational background has trained her to think primarily in a very linear and concrete fashion: If the drawer is working, it will close all the way (uncontested fact).  –> The drawer won’t close all the way (verified by repeated trials). –> Ergo, the drawer must be broken: There could be no other explanation that would have to take into account unseen events (facts not in evidence); therefore, there was nothing else to consider or explore.


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Posted by on January 21, 2011 in Main


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