What is the weakness of the Chinese education system

Pisa success : China's tough school

"When I grow up, I want to win the Olympic Games as a Taekwondo professional for China or work as a police officer in Australia," says ten-year-old Li Junxing. Chinese school children also have dreams. But you rarely have time to indulge yourself. Like most Chinese students, Junxing has a jam-packed schedule. The regular lessons are followed by study groups, language lessons and other additional activities. Junxing, who is in the 6th grade of a modern boarding school, has lessons every day until 4 p.m. After that, he has to do homework. He also has piano lessons, Taekwondo lessons and private English lessons twice a week. “I already have enough time to play. It only gets tight when there are exams, ”says the Beijing student.

By German standards, Li Junxing's workload already seems high. His schedule is strict - but at least he can listen to the radio or watch a movie in the evenings. There is hardly any time for other Chinese schoolchildren. Because a normal school day with homework and private lessons often lasts until 9 p.m.

"The social pressure on our children, but also on us parents, to provide the best education for our children is great," says Junxing's mother Zhu Ying, who, like her husband, works in finance. She knows that she expects a lot from her son. “But with the additional activities such as playing the piano or Taekwondo, we want to open up a world for our son that his school cannot offer him,” she says. Placements in competitions are not so important to her. An attitude that few Chinese parents share.

Because whether in Beijing or Shanghai, whether at school or in private lessons, the goal of Chinese parents remains the same - they all want their children to have very good grades. Only these enable access to good universities, a basic requirement for a well-paid job. When it comes to assessing students, China's school system already uses regular tests for the youngest. Without high scores, the good middle schools remain closed to the children.

The same applies to the 5th grade exam, which determines whether you can attend one of the better secondary schools. At the end of the day, the important entrance exam (“Gaokao”) decides whether you get a place at the university. That is why Chinese children study so intensely for exams, that is why they concentrate mostly on memorization. And that's why their life is one big competition.

Regular tests and study to the point of exhaustion. Is this what the education model of the future looks like? Is that a lesson from the Pisa study? For the first time, students from mainland China from the metropolis of Shanghai took part in the study and achieved outstanding results in mathematics, natural sciences and also in reading and understanding texts. But while in Europe and the USA one looks at the good results of the Chinese students with full appreciation and also somewhat surprised, Chinese education experts warn against overestimating the results.

Jiang Xueqin, education expert at Beijing University, wrote in the "Wall Street Journal" that China's school system is "with its demanding parents, ambitious students and its obsession with tests, the strictest in the world". While the world is now praising this system, China is just beginning to understand its weaknesses. Many Chinese schools would fail to prepare students for higher education and a knowledge-based economy.

One of the biggest problems remains that the students are trimmed too much into memorization. “How can you develop a strong imagination and creativity when you can only learn by heart what is in the textbooks. When you are told that there is only one right answer to a question, "China Daily said in a comment in December, shortly after the Pisa results were announced. At the expense of a happy childhood, Chinese children would be brought in to be professional examinees.

If the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is to be believed, the Chinese government has recognized some undesirable developments in the education system. "In the past two decades, Chinese policy-makers have tried to reduce the exam-orientation of the system," says an OECD document that deals with the Chinese education system. China is also trying to reduce the workload of the students.

However, like Chinese experts, the OECD has also come to the conclusion that these efforts have not yet had enough effect. A look into the everyday life of Chinese school children is enough to convince yourself of this. “On some days the children fall asleep in class. That's how exhausted they are, ”says Lu Hua, who teaches English at one of Beijing's many private language schools. She was supposed to be teaching English as early as three year olds who barely spoke their own language.

Great pressure to perform and an examination orientation that prevent any creativity - apart from these errors in the system, it should not be overlooked that only students from Shanghai and Hong Kong took part in the Pisa test. The Pisa study clearly states that the results do not apply to the whole of China, but only to these two regions. But these are by no means representative of the whole country. As a rich port city for mainland China, Shanghai has traditionally always played a pioneering role and can pour a lot of money into educational institutions.

Even the Pisa boss at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, says that in Shanghai we can already see what it will look like in China as a whole in twenty years. Video studies of school lessons in Shanghai had shown that lessons were no longer reduced to cramming factual knowledge. Rather, “demanding” lessons are given that go far beyond the mere reproduction of knowledge. Teachers would respond individually to the needs of their students. It is therefore not surprising that students do well in the Pisa study, which does not ask for facts, but wants to find out how students can apply knowledge.

Hong Kong, whose students took fourth place at Pisa, is an even more obvious special case. With its past as a British crown colony, the motto “one country, two systems” also applies to education. Some other major Chinese cities may still reach this top level - the conditions in the rural regions look much worse.

The unequal distribution of educational opportunities has not only a geographical component, but also a social one. According to the OECD, there are around 30 million school-age migrant children whose parents flock to major Chinese cities in search of work. Two thirds of these children come to the big cities with their parents, while around ten million are left with relatives in their home villages. The children of migrant workers in the big cities have good schools on their doorstep, but are not always allowed to attend them. Because, like their parents, they do not have city citizenship (hukou), they are excluded from social benefits - such as free schooling - in many metropolises.

In addition, migrant workers often have no money to attend school for their children. China's leadership wants to improve the situation. But progress is slow. At least for the capital Beijing, an initiative of civil rights activists and parents, after long protests, has succeeded in ensuring that every child, regardless of whether they have a Hukou or not, can go to school - including middle school. However, access to Beijing University is still barred to children of migrant workers.

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