China's strength in PISA study highlights schools' weakness (Feature)
By Andreas Landwehr Dec 16, 2010, 3:02 GMT
Shanghai - Chinese pupils are the world's exam champions. The great results they achieved in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study have triggered surprise, admiration and envy.
But the success hides a growing problem - while Chinese children may be good at rote learning, their creativity suffers.
The latest PISA study, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks pupils from Shanghai, who participated for the first time, top in maths, science and reading.
The success comes at a price - the tough school system robs China's students not only of their childhood, but also of their imagination - making Shanghai's good showing at PISA an example of how little the study sometimes says about the quality of a country's education system.
Xiao Fang attends the third form of a Shanghai primary school. 'From morning to night, it's just school,' the 8-year-old's grandmother said. 'The pressure is enormous and there is no time for her to play.'
A normal school day including doing homework usually lasts until 9 pm, then Xiao Fang goes to bed. On the weekend, the girl takes extra English classes.
Her parents are both educated and earn high incomes. For their daughter to get a similarly high-paying job, she has to study hard.
Without good exam results, there is no chance of getting into a good secondary school, and then she needs to ace exams in the fifth grade or she will be relegated to a less well-regarded high school.
After that, an entrance exam, the Gaokao, will decide if she can attend a top university, which in turn determines job prospects here.
Therfore, Xiao Fang's parents make sure their daughter studies hard.
Nowhere in the world do children study harder for exams and nowhere are they better at rote learning. So it is of little surprise that they do well in the PISA study, which focuses on these qualities.
But Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Peking University High School, is loth to speak of success. He rather sees it as a 'sign of weakness' and a 'symptom of the problem.'
'These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests,' Jiang wrote in an article published by the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. 'For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.'
The failings of rote-memorization were well known, he argued. A lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination and loss of curiosity.
Both multinational and Chinese companies criticize the same thing about Chinese graduates. 'They cannot work independently, lack the social skills to work in a team and are too arrogant to learn new skills,' Jiang wrote.
They need the ability to identify problems, pick them apart and analyze them from different angles and find solutions that can be transported across cultural boundaries. Chinese students need to learn how to 'think critically' if they are to become globally competitive, Jiang said.
Michael Pettis, who teaches at Peking University's school of management, said he believed that the Chinese education system deprived students of their creativity early on.
'My students are generally able to solve logical math puzzles much better than my US and European students, and that reflects some very good training in math,' the US economist said.
On the other hand, Pettis said he had to work hard to get them to think beyond the models taught in class, a feat easier for Western students.
In a study of 21 countries released in November, Chinese students came last when their imagination was examined. In the creativity rankings, China came in fifth from the bottom.
'These results are shocking,' the China Daily warned. Children had almost no chance to use their imagination, the paper said. 'From the first day of school, they are pushed into a culture of exams, exams and more exams.'
To pass their exams, students are only required to memorize standardized answers. Teachers did not dare to encourage students to push boundaries with their thoughts, the China Daily criticized.
'Teachers don't like students who question them and suffocate the inquisitiveness of the young minds.'