Understanding Education in China

By Mijares, Al | Leadership, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Understanding Education in China


Mijares, Al, Leadership


I recently had the opportunity to tour an elementary school in a large urban system, and as a former superintendent, was stunned to walk into a classroom and count 65 students. The eight-hour school day began at 8 a.m. Students and teachers had a one-hour break at noon, and then reported back to class from 1 to 5 p.m.

There was almost an absence of technology, and the building was old and in need of repairs. The bathrooms were clean, but had a stale odor that comes from age and years of mildew under the tile.

Despite these challenging conditions, the students radiated with excitement and wanted very much to show visitors like me their skills. The school principal and teachers were passionate about education and taught with great enthusiasm and with high expectations for their students' work.

In fact, another educator on the trip said students she interacted with in a classroom wanted to know from the visiting educators how they could improve in school. This drive for perfection, she indicated, was sadly absent from most schools in her own school district.

The attitude of students and staff belied the reality of the conditions found in their classrooms. The school I toured was not located in one of the major urban centers of the United States, but China.

I was taken by surprise. As one of several hundred educators touring China through the College Board's Chinese Bridge Program, I had read about the emerging power of China, with its vast technological advancements and its infrastructure and building program moving at the speed of light.

I was under the impression that China supplied the world with most of its computer and software needs. I guess I was expecting that most students there, especially in the cities, would therefore have a computer and be taught in technologically driven schools with reasonable class sizes. In fairness, we did see some schools with more technology, better facilities and more manageable class sizes, but it wasn't the norm.

Student and teacher excitement for learning

A colleague of mine, who is an elementary school principal in Santa And, toured another province in China and reported class sizes between 70 and 75 students, with no classroom aide! High school class sizes were approximately 60 students.

Further, there were no special education students in these schools. We were told very pointedly that students with disabilities were placed in special schools in order to accommodate their needs.

Still, I marveled at the motivation of students and teachers. Their excitement and confidence for learning was moving. Their command of the English language, especially their knowledge of the United States, was impressive.

Beginning in the second grade, English is a required subject. Students "must" master English if they expect to ascend through the education system. Moreover, we were told that parents strictly reinforced this mandate. Is it no wonder that China is now the largest English-speaking country in the world?

In third grade, chemistry and physics, with laboratory included, are introduced to students. Students are expected to create independent research projects and to design experiments using the scientific model. In middle school, the visual and performing arts programs are given even greater emphasis.

Physical education and sports programs also play a significant role in the instructional program. Students are required to participate in daily calisthenics. In one middle school we saw all students march onto the blacktop playground and exercise for 20 minutes, led by students and accompanied by hard rock music. This was a daily routine involving more than 1,300 students at the same time, and on cue. We saw few cases of obesity among the students and staff.

American culture a focus for the Chinese

Science, math and literature are centerpieces of student work, coupled with Chinese and American culture. …

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