China has a reputation for having a rigorous education system, scoring number one out of 65 nations in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA
Fifteen-year-olds around the world take the PISA every three years, and it’s become the gold standard of ranking nations in terms of educational strength.
In comparison to China, the US scored 36th in maths, 28th in science, and 24th in reading on the last PISA ranking.
China’s dominance on international standardised tests, coupled with its relatively cheap government spending on education, might make the country seem like one whose schools the US should emulate.
But Yong Zhao’s book
“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” takes a critical look major flaws in China’s education system, arguing that its focus on test-taking can rob students of creativity.
“Chinese education produces excellent test scores, a short-term outcome that can be achieved by rote memorization and hard work,” writes Zhao, who grew up in China and taught there, “but like the Chinese government itself, it does not produce a citizenry of diverse, creative, and innovative talent.”
Chinese educational system excels at transmitting a narrow amount of content and prescribed skills that its students must master, Zhao argues.
Chinese students put an outsize amount of time into mastering these skills. They have an average of 14 hours of homework a week, the most of any country measured by a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The US, for comparison, had an average of 6 hours per week.
This hard work isn’t paying off in terms of innovation, according to Zhao.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review expressed doubts that China could be a world leader in entrepreneurship due to the “bounded” education and political systems there.
And many think the Gaokao, China’s most important university entrance exam, kills creativity and drive. Xu Xiaoping, a Chinese angel investor, believes this to be the case and also claims it will take at least 20 years for China to stop sending students overseas to learn how to be innovative, according to Venture Beat.
Zhao looks to another Chinese scholars’ words on the matter to highlight this point.
“No one, after 12 years if Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she goes to Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or Cambridge for college,” Zheng Yefu, a professor at China’s Peking University, said, according to Zhao’s blog.
While that might be an overstatement, other scholars have noted the dearth of Chinese-educated Nobel Prize winners. In order for China to produce more Nobel Prize winners, “Chinese academia will need to modify their teaching styles to emphasise more creative problem solving, rather than the traditional approach that values … memorization,” the prominent statistician Howard Steven Friedman wrote in the Huffington Post.
The US shouldn’t rush to adopt China’s rote education methods, Zhao argues. For him, that’s already happening with America’s increased fixation on standardised testing. This focus on testing, he argues, reflects America’s embrace authoritarianism.
A rush to look like China, he argues, would lead to “the loss of values traditionally celebrated by American education — values that helped make America the most prosperous and advanced nation in the world.”
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