Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Young Zhao

5. Fooling the Emperor

  • When the emperor asks for something, it is common for the people to provide it, even if the quality is lacking. There have been several examples of this over time, but the most recent was the expectation that the Chinese would start to produce massive numbers of scientific publications and patents. Even high school students strive to submit low level patents to polish their college applications. What was created among other things, was a fraudulent publication industry along with large numbers of low quality patents. Another problem is that the central government controls the distribution of positions at their institutions. Since the positions are limited, they have created an intense mechanism for competition along with high temptations to game the system.
  • While the Chinese approach seems effective, there are three reasons why it is not. First is wishful thinking. The grand vision from the emperor is often out of touch with reality as it is hard for opposing views to reach the authority. Simply mandating innovation is unrealistic. The second deals with upward accountability. There is only one career ladder to climb so everyone works hard to please their superiors. Fulfilling superior’s wishes encourages cheating which sometimes is the only choice. It also requires every one to have the same targets passed down from on high. The third is a uniform and quantifiable standard. There is a need for the authority to have an easily measured standard so they can objectively and fairly reward resources. As a result, quantity matters more than quality so real innovations may go unnoticed in place of large quantities of low-quality efforts. If you believe that innovation comes from the work of free-spirited people driven by their own passion, you can see why China has lagged far behind.

6. Hell to Heaven

  • Out of one billion people educated in China since 1949, there have been no Nobel prize winners! This testifies to the ability of education to destroy creativity. It reinforces the notion that Chinese students are known as great test takers who lack creativity. It also shows that the things that are easy to test are becoming less relevant. The most damaging aspect of Chinese education is its effectiveness in eliminating individual differences, suppressing intrinsic motivation, and imposing conformity. What results is the transmission of a narrow band of predetermine content and the cultivation of prescribed skills.
  • Yong sums up the problem as cultural values narrowly defining worthwhile accomplishment. For many, the purpose of education is to get a government job or any job that hovers well above the struggle for daily necessities. Valuing education is simply a survival strategy that evolved to cope with the authoritarian system that features a very narrow definition of success. Schools are ranked, and ranking means almost everything for parents and students as access to positions is almost entirely dependent on where you went to school. It’s like saying only Harvard or Yale need apply. Sorting into classes and schools is constant and can happen on a monthly or weekly basis.
  • The students from Shanghai who score so high on the PISA test spend twice as much time on homework as their competition. Wealthy families often bribe to get the best teachers and schools and have an easy time paying for extra lessons. Students spend almost every waking hour studying and are seldom left on their own to learn in their own way. Incentives are all external so it is easy to see how they kill students’ innate curiosity, creativity, and love of learning. Chinese schools exist for test prep and the last year of high school is exclusively test prep as no new content is taught. If a student has a talent in another area, chances are they will never discover it. What doesn’t get tested are confidence, resilience, grit, mind-set, personality traits, social skills, and motivation. While the world praises the hard working students, the students themselves and their parents curse the academic workload.
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