China’s education system… [Global Times commentary]

China’s education system: good for communication and creativity?, Global Times, July 2, 2009

Much is being said about China’s education system. Whether gaokao is the best – or at least fairest – system possible or a way to test nothing but nerves and rote memory; how education supposedly destroyed rather than promoted creativity; or simply how the students were too passive and lax.

My experience is with universities abroad, and now in China. No matter where I studied, worked, or simply talked with teachers or professors, the students at colleges or those getting an online education were always too passive, not quite as hard working as they could be, not quite creative enough. (To be honest, I don’t find myself to be as hard working and creative as I would like to be.)

What I find most striking in China, however, is the value that is placed on learning, and a contradiction within that: In traditional Chinese culture, education was one of the highest values, a way to better one’s social standing. And it still is. Students, by and large, seem to be a lot more motivated in China than other places I have been.

Unfortunately, however, the system is such that the final exams at the end of the year, and the graduation certificate at the end of the studies, appear to have too much importance.

The content of the studies, on the other hand, does not have quite the importance it should.
It is not for gaining an academic degree, that one goes to university, it is to get an education, to learn skills and gain qualifications to use in one’s life.

In the field of foreign languages that I work in, this contradiction is very noticeable if one compares the European Union’s system of classifying language skills and Chinese students’ abilities. The EU ranks qualifications from a basic level, the ability to communicate about simple issues of daily life; through medium qualification, at which the language learner can communicate freely in both oral and written form about topics related to studies, family and life; and on to an advanced level, approaching or equal to the language skills of a native speaker.

When it comes to grammar and vocabulary, in theory and for direct translation, many Chinese students are at the intermediate level after an amazingly short time of study – but the ability to communicate effectively, to understand and express arguments, is often very limited. Much of the learning is oriented on passing the exams, not on communication.

Oftentimes, I think that it may be here that many foreign teachers are misled into thinking that there is a general lack of creativity.

Actually, when the language skill is high enough to be applied to an interesting task, I find as many of my Chinese students to be very creative, and as many disinterested, as abroad. Given that this is within a system of teaching that is different from the Western model I use, and given that they are working in a foreign language, I am impressed.

After all, I think it is more of a challenge to the foreign teachers to try and find ways to get the students engaged than it is a failure of “the system” or “the students.” That is not to say that there are no challenges to universities and students, of course.

Most importantly, it feels as if Chinese universities, having grown so quickly, are at a point where universities in my country of origin, Austria, were about a decade ago: with universities standing apart from normal work life.

Universities were trying to argue that their purpose is to produce scientists. Having had to become more responsive to the job market, every study course now has to explain not only what knowledge the students will have to learn, but what skills that they can offer to employers they will acquire, and what careers this opens up. In the future, a university diploma alone will probably not be enough in China, either.

So, it is up to the students to look for ways in which they can deepen their skills and work
on their employability.

In China, this challenge of proving oneself and one’s worth, given the highly competitive nature of the job market for graduates, is certainly even more of a challenge than in Europe or the US.

It is also an approach that universities have barely started using. And universities need to consider what their reason for existence is: to equip students with the skills they will need to build a successful life and a strong country, not merely to hand out a diploma.

For teachers – and first of all, I’m grabbing myself by my own big nose when it comes to this – the challenge is to be responsible for their students, learning to be even better themselves, too.

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