Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Some thoughts about the school system over here....

In my previous job I got to meet and interview a lot of foreign CEOs based in China. When I asked them about problems at their work place, they all said similar things:

"Well, it's hard to get the Chinese workers to take on responsibilities"

"It's always quiet at my meetings! I talk -and the Chinese staff are quiet."

"Nobody ever tells me when they run into a problem. Instead the problem snowballs into something huge before it is revealed and then it is normally too late to solve it."

Having studied a little bit more than a year at a Chinese university, I am starting to understand where these problems come from.

I must have been lucky with my teachers before because they have all been encouraging, helpful and happy. But the teachers I have now? Well, sure, they are friendly, but their attitude to mistakes?! Ridiculous!!!

Just the other day we had the infamous 听写'ting xie' (this means that the teacher reads characters that u then have to write down). Once we finished she told us to pass out papers over to a class mate and correct each other's. Then she said:

-So, if your friend have gotten EVERYTHING right, you should write 很好!(= 'Hen hao!' very good!). If he or she has gotten only one mistake you can write 好! (= 'Hao!' good!) and if he or she has TWO mistakes you write 加油! (= 'Jia You!' A cheerful encouragement).
-What if someone has more mistakes than 2? I asked.
-Hm... well, ehum... She looked very uncomfortable and looked at me as if I was some sort of freak, as if she was thinking: "What do you mean, MORE than 2 mistakes??! That's unacceptable!" She actually never answered me on that one.

(I guess I don't even have to mention that I had FAR more mistakes than 2?!)

When our papers had been corrected and given back to us, the teacher walked around the class glancing over our shoulders to see if we were a 很好 'hen hao', 好 'hao' or 加油 'jia you' student.
She stopped at the Japanese boy sitting in front of me, whose paper I had corrected (he was a spotless 很好 'hen hao!')

-Very good! she said approvingly.
He beamed.

Then she moved on to me. (who got so nervous that I did a lame attempt to covering some of my mistakes with my hand. Imagine that!)

-Jonna?! Is this your paper? (Her voice got all icy, or was it just me imagining?!) so many mistakes? Why did you write this character (pointing at one) when I read "亲qin?" That is not okay! You have to correct all of these and study at home. A lot! Okay?

-Yes teacher.

Oh my... and this is just one example. Our spoken teacher engages in another 'sport.'

She keeps talking about the importance of us all TALKING as much as possible during class (which is sometimes hard seeing that she's VERY good at talking herself, leaving less time for us to talk since we always first have to listen to her for about 30 min). When she finally passes around a question, and asks everyone to answer, she is very open about who she thinks can talk and who she thinks cannot.

To someone she thinks can speak she doesn't hold back on the compliments:

-Listen to this student! she speaks really well, clear and fluently. Very good! Very good! You should all do the same.

To someone who she thinks cannot speak she's not as cheerful:

-You need to go home and practice more.

Sure, I get it. I am not studying in Scandinavia (where negative feedback like this is rare) anymore but in China. Things are different. But I just know how these comment some days can make me feel? It's not that encouraging to hear that you cannot speak, or that because u made 5 mistakes you are a BAD (suck ass! although they would never say that) student?! It doesn't really makes u feel like studying harder... rather, it makes u feel a bit useless. Despite not being 8 years old anymore.

So, imagine having these sort of teachers from when u are a little child. U do your best but maybe that's not enough, or even worse, maybe u make a MISTAKE (boooh!!)... and u get this sort of feedback (something tells me that our teachers are not even that harsh... they are probably 'nicer' to us since we are lao wais... so then just imagine how the are to the Chinese kids)?! Well, you certainly won't do that mistake again. Or at least you will try not to. But it's impossible. Everyone makes mistakes sooner or later. So therefore u start hiding them. You shy away from responsibility so that you can always blame someone else. Or, you simply shut up so that u won't risk saying something that might be wrong?

Hm... all those foreign CEOs should take a class at a Chinese uni and then they wouldn't have to wonder anymore why their staff are so scared of making mistakes/taking on responsibilities.


Plumflower said...

Herregud, den sortens "pedagogik" kan ju ta knäcken på vem som helst. Otroligt att du står ut.

Anonymous said...

Jonna, this is a great post - very insightful and on the money! I sometimes feel sorry for most Chinese kids, including mine. Wife and I are Chinese living in America. I have come to understand and see how awful and damaging this Chinese way of pushing our kids can be to their self esteem and potential leadership. So I am very encouraging and supportive of my kids. My wife is still very Chinese. It's hard to help her see the problem. She still frequently uses words like "stupid", "so dumb", "so easy that you should have got it" with our kids. Our Chinese friends do the same thing with their kids, even here in America. An American friend who used to live in America for several decades told me this, "Chinese people are smart, had the technologies, science and math before the West ever did. But Chinese have not achieved the world superpower because the Chinese lack understanding." You are seeing things from a vantage point coming from another culture. I have learned my lesson as well living in America. I only wish more Chinese can see their problem with their educational system.

Anonymous said...

Wow Jonna, I cant believe how quickly you write entries into your blog! It's amazing. Good on you.

I'm reading a book right now called The No Asshole Rule, by Robert I Sutton, a PhD at Stanford. Your teacher's behaviour matches that of an asshole exactly. One feature of an a**hole is that you feel drained, less certain of yourself and just, well, shitty. It is also usually from a person of higher authority slamming down on a person below them.

Pity you cant change teachers.



Kate said...

Yikes, I hear you there. Also, according to my Chinese roomie, in class they don't ask any questions and there is no discussion...not even note taking! I don't know how it is in Scandinavia but at my college in the US, the way we learn to problem solve and think creatively is through discussion, and sometimes making mistakes is encouraged... There are definitely some "pro's" to this sort of insistence on flawless work (i.e. achieving really good quality work) but it surely has a lot of downsides too...

and yes... bibimpap soo good. actually all korean food delicious haha. i am jealous that you went to seoul- i have never been to Korea but my boyfriend was born and raised in seoul so whenever we cook i get to eat all kinds of yummies and he likes to take me to korean restaurants too- hopefully i get to head over there sooner rather than later~~ :-D

Jonna Wibelius said...

Plumflower -Ibland är det verkligen outhärdigt! Man får försöka att skratta åt det istället för att ta det på allvar. Ibland fastnar dock skrattet i halsen.

Anonymouse1 -glad that u liked the post, and that u know what I mean. I also feel for the Chi kids, and I hope that the Chi edu system will eventually change. I mean, does anyone actually think it's fun? Does the teachers like being mean to their students? Does the kids like being humilated? It really calls for some change.

Adrian -I am a morning blogger...and a quick writer :) This one's been 'boiling' inside of me for a while now.. so had to let it out!

I thought about trying to change class for a day or so but then I just thought.. 'nah.. I'm just going to laugh about it instead of taking it too seriously.' Let's see how that goes.

Kate -a bf that can cook Korean food?!!! He's a keeper ;)

Unknown said...

Hey Jonna loving the blog... i just want to provide some encouragment after reading today's post. Thanks for an awesome Suzhou sojourn :)

Anonymous said...

Jonna - I have been reading your blog for sometime now and am very impressed with the conversations you seem to have with the Chinese! Keep up the good work.
I have always told my employees that if you are not making mistakes and learning from them, you are not doing your job (well, there is a maximum that I think we can tolerate...but you get my point)!
I think the same applies here!

Geoff said...

Hello Jonna,

I continue to enjoy reading the different entries which you post at this blog. It is interesting to read a "visitor's" opinion of Chinese life.

From your description of school life, it would appear the constructivist approach to education, where the learner is at the centre of everything has not reached your university.

I would be interested to hear what schooling for children is like in China. Is it all "chalk and talk", the eacher standing at the front of the classroom and doing all of the talking. Catering only for the auditory learners, who are then asked to regurgitate facts.

Geoff (Australia)

Anonymous said...

I wish your life in China great and rich memory.

Anonymous said...

First, I have great sympathy on you. Second, don’t be afraid of “losing face” when it comes to learning a foreign language or anything else. Long time ago, I looked for a partner for language exchange (Mandarin-Swedish) in Finland. I might have made a grammar mistake in my advertisement in Swedish and then I got a feedback “pidgin är allt man behöver i kina”, i.e. “Chinese Pidgin English (or Chinese Pidgin Swedish) is all that people need in China”, from one of the stereotyped “svenskatalande bättre folk” (the Swedish-speaking ‘better people’).

Sometimes Scandinavians also talk very straightforward in terms of pedagogy. My corporate finance professor (a Norwegian) once responded to my questions: “why do you have so many questions?!” The experience was absolutely one cultural shock to me. Before that I always thought that students were supposed and entitled to raise questions. It turned out that “question time” in a Norwegian class was usually a rhetorical equivalent to “The class is going to be dismissed in 2 minutes.”

I have learned the so-called “let my face be as ‘thick’ as the wall.” ‘Losing face’ is not a big deal for me any longer. This Monday I mixed words such as ‘helppo’ (easy) and ‘halpa’ (cheap) in a Finnish class. Even two Pakistani classmates laughed at me for such ‘stupid’ mistakes. My tactic was to smile back and get more motivated to learn the language better.

Anonymous said...

Just in case anyone out there is interested, there's an upcoming webinar, sponsored by the US Department of Commerce, on the sustainable rebuilding of Sichuan's schools after this summer's earthquakes. It should be an interesting perspective.

Anonymous said...

I was an exchange student at a middle school in Anhui for one year. The school wanted to boost their reputation and make their school an "international" one.

They had a hard time with me as I dident speak any chinese, and were unwilling to study chinese 24/7, and I dident know the chinese culture very well so we kind of got off on the wrong fot from the very beginning, so after about three months they kind of gave up on me, so I was actually just sitting and looking at how the teachers behaved and how they learned their students about different subjects.

Anhui is one of the least developed provinces in central China and my class had about 60 students and the classrooms looked like something you see mostly in Africa, tough the winter was freezing and windy while the summers were too hot and humid. The pressure put on the students there was enormous, it was pretty common for the teachers to hit their students and humiliate them by telling ironic jokes about how stupid they were, usually making the whole class laugh of the student that made the mistake. Once one of my friends took the arm of a teacher that was going to hit another students, only ending up with himself getting chocked by the teacher, giving him pretty nasty wounds on his neck.

The teachers might be like this because they all get rated after how good their class is doing, and the exam results for every teachers is public for anyone who wants to know. If a teacher get a bad score then they often get a cut in their salary until they improve, and if not they might get fired, and the fastest way of make a short term improvment is usually to terrify your students to study more.

They learn their students to do well on exams, and chinese exams (at least those in middle school) got usually nothing to do with skills you actually need to be good at something. Specially when it comes to english. I had a really hard time, just like all the students (and the teachers) with the exams in english, because it was only about grammar, and a kind of grammar you usually never care about, like who/whom etc. At the same time the students dident understand a word english that was not spoken by their english teacher, nor speak anything themselves.

I dont think it will change in a long time due to the fact that they would have to get more classrooms and change the habits of the teachers and most parents.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Emil -that sounds insane?! I can't believe u went back to China after that experience... Also, this proves that I was right: the teachers are way nicer to us than to the Chinese students. Gosh. No wonder why it is so popular for Chi kids to study abroad.

Anonymous said...

There's an old chinese saying:严师出高徒 (harsh teachers lead to good students) and it is widely accepted by the parents, teachers, and even students. Another reason for this harsh teaching style is that the entrance to universities is too strict. Especially for kids in rural areas, the uni entrance exam is the only way for them to leave their poor villages to modern cities, and that's why the education is so harsh and strict. The chinese themselves are blaming this system right now, but since they can not find any properer but also fair system, it remained the same. However education in big cities are much better and westernized.



来了这里潜水几天了,看到这么好的帖子,忍不住出来冒个泡。因为“so then just imagine how the are to the Chinese kids”这句话真的给我内心深处带来一丝温暖,一个只在中国念过两年中文的老外都懂得关心中国小学生们的心里感受!素质教育(quality-oriented education)这个口号从90年代初我开始念小学时就叫起来了,直到现在还没有什么本质的改变,束缚学生的依然是那句“分分分学生的命根,考考考老师的法宝”。依稀记得快进入21世纪时,政府实在是不忍心学生那么辛苦了,又提出了“减负”的口号和政策,中小学生星期六都不用上课了,依然记得当年第一个星期六假日早上睡醒时的感觉,应该跟爷爷奶奶49年10月1日那天的感觉一样吧——解放!只是好日子对于学生来说总是短暂的,没过多久,学校就偷偷摸摸地开始给学生星期六“补课”(实际是正常上课)了,家长们也满意地在同意书上签字,寒~~~