The Chinese way

Compare what some people are saying about American approaches to education with Nicholas Kristof’s report on Chinese education:

I visited several elementary and middle schools accompanied by two of my children. And in general, the level of math taught even in peasant schools is similar to that in my kids’ own excellent schools in the New York area.

My kids’ school system doesn’t offer foreign languages until the seventh grade. These Chinese peasants begin English studies in either first grade or third grade, depending on the school.

Frankly, my daughter got tired of being dragged around schools and having teachers look patronizingly at her schoolbooks and say, “Oh, we do that two grades younger.”

Kristof argues that Chinese students and schools perform so well primarily due to cultural dispositions. For example:

Chinese believe that those who get the best grades are the hardest workers. In contrast, Americans say in polls that the best students are the ones who are innately the smartest. The upshot is that Chinese kids never have an excuse for mediocrity.


China has an enormous cultural respect for education, part of its Confucian legacy, so governments and families alike pour resources into education. Teachers are respected and compensated far better, financially and emotionally, in China than in America.

Note that emphasized part — there’s a lot more to compensation of teachers than their salaries. Many Americans suppose that the quality of education received in school is directly proportional to the amount of money being pumped into the school. But money is not the problem, nor is curriculum, nor standardized testing or the lack thereof — culture is the problem. You have to have an educational system whose culture values learning, hard work, high standards, and intellectual pursuits, And the culture at large needs to reflect that too, to a great extent. And it’s there that I think we Americans are heading into serious trouble if things don’t change.

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture

6 responses to “The Chinese way

  1. Interesting. The educational environment described in Kristof’s article is very different from what my wife and I observed while teaching in China back in 2004. While students had a good grasp on the fundamentals within their education (as Kristof observed), there was a decided lack of ability when it came to creative problem solving (i.e. there was a pervasive “cookbook” mentality when it comes to education). Also, the culture within Chinese (and actually, both Korean and Japanese academia) discourages independent thought; work is evaluated not so much on its merit, but whether or not it is consistent with the opinion of the leading professors. Until these pervasive attitudes shift, the United States will still have an overall advantage; however, I definitely agree that there needs to be a greater emphasis on fundamentals and work ethic within the American educational system.

    As a side note, one thing which gave me a bit of the heebie jeebies while I was there was the near “manifest destiny” attitude among the Chinese with respect to world dominance. A lot of the students I worked with felt that the last thousand years or so were just a “down time” for China, and that they were on their way back to their rightful place as the world’s dominant power. What I find interesting though is that the economic and academic emergence of China will probably correspond with demise of its oppressive Communist regime. There is a strong movement among the “young successfuls” that I worked with to want an educational, political, and economic system more akin to the United States.

    The next 20 years should prove to be very interesting.

  2. Eric — Kristof makes that same point about creativity a little later in the article, but notes that Chinese education is adapting as a result of the debate.

    And you’re right, China is already an interesting place and should be even more so in the next few years.

  3. I did notice his point about creativity, but based on both my experience and those I know who have worked in Beijing more recently than myself, his claim about the adaptation of their educational system in this particular area seems overstated.

    One change that is in fact occurring though is a growing emphasis on Western ethics education (in particular, Christian based ethics) in Chinese schools. It has become apparent to the Chinese leadership that in order to compete in the global marketplace, as well as continue the development of their internal economy (which is becoming more free market every day), their citizens need to be trained to think and act ethically.

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  5. JimMc

    Is this all relative you think? When he says Chinese kids are hungry for education and advancement, I think about the context of that – specifically, the environment the kids may be growing up in. I assume it’s more rural and undeveloped than anything we are comparing to here.

    I guess I’m wondering if society gets more complacent as it advances? Are they more hungry and motivated than us because China as a whole is so far behind us, in a total economic development sense?

    Not to sound condescending or prejudiced towards anyone, but if mommy and daddy have it all and junior’s life centers mostly around the prosperity contest he has with his friends (check out the latest plasma tv that WE got!), well yah – don’t be surprised if a few nations start sneaking up on us.

  6. mrc

    If you haven’t read Liping Ma’s book “Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics” I highly recommend it. She investigates the differences between American and Chinese teachers, and the book actually got me excited about teaching arithmetic. (At least in theory.) The best part is the quotes from conversations and interviews with teachers — they really reveal the cultures.