Test-crazy China seeks innovators

China’s education system turns out students who are great at memorizing but not at thinking, writes Helen Gao, who moved from China to the U.S. for her senior year of high school.

In 2010, an international standardized test found that junior high school students in Shanghai had outperformed their peers in rest of the world in math, science, and reading, beating the U.S. averages by a wide margin. . . . (The) nine-year compulsory education system, installed in 1986, has boosted the country’s literacy rate to around 92 percent (it was 67 percent as of 1980) and prepared millions of eligible young people for the rapidly expanding workforce. Now, however, as the economy shows signs of cooling, Chinese leaders are trying to engender more domestic innovation.

They hope to see an educated workforce, rather than toiling on factory floors or sitting in the cubicles of Western companies’ Chinese branches, found their own businesses or brands that will sell to domestic as well as international buyers. They want domestic moviegoers to stop purchasing bootleg DVDs of Western blockbusters, and for foreign viewers to start raving about Chinese films. But the nation’s education system, instead of channeling the youthful energy of China’s next generation, seems to be blocking it.

The gao kao, the college admissions test, determines students’ futures. It’s all multiple choice, Gao writes.
Chinese students spend years cramming for the big test, reports the New York Times.

. . .  new research by the workplace manager Regus shows that Chinese employers are now favoring graduates with internship experience, winning personalities and foreign language skills. Just 9 percent of employers, especially at large companies, now put educational background as the top priority in hiring.

That probably means acing the gao kao, getting into a prestigious university and offering experience, personality and language skills.

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  1. SuperSub says:

    Personally, I’d say that the lack of innovation in China has more to do with a lack of ambition amongst the general population rather than any educational deficiency. Its a matter of culture, not policy.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s likely not a lack of ambition, either. China’s not North Korea — not by a long shot. But it’s not exactly the sort of place that encourages nails to stick up.

    • SuperSub says:

      Let me be more specific… scientific ambition that would encourage them to want to revolutionize their world. Every individual who immigrated or is first generation from China would tell me how their culture forces conformity, which limits innovation.

  3. ohio annie says:

    We see this in American graduate schools in the physical sciences, the students from the PRC ace exams, having memorized entire textbooks, but, come time for individual research, they slow way down. But by the end of coursework they have left the American students in the dust.

  4. Prof. Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon, a Chinese immigrant, does a fantastic — and amusing — presentation on this topic. As Gao says, Zhao observes that China’s education culture produces great test scores and stifles creativity and innovation.

    He also backs up a point that’s already known to the well informed: The notion that America’s schools are newly failing is false; Americans have been screaming “crisis!” for decades, and U.S. test scores have never stacked up well in international comparisons.

    • I’m currently volunteering for his department at the UO and I must say his ideas are fascinating. The fact that China is now seeking to move towards American-style innovation while America cries out for the system of rote learning and standardized testing that China is trying to cast off is just mind-boggling

    • Shujahat Ali says:

      Hi, can you send me the link of presentation?

  5. GEORGE LARSON says:

    ohio annie

    You have confused me. Do you mean Chinese students eventually catch up and surpass Amercian students in research?

    • ohio annie says:

      No, I said they ace the coursework. Coursework comes first in the doctoral program, followed by research.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    This sort of thing is as old as time.

    In his sort-of memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the famous American physicist, and character, Richard Feynman talks about teaching in Brazil in the early 1950s and finding exactly this problem: students spending prodigious time memorizing at the expense of understanding. He was asked to give a final public lecture and, being Feynman, accepted on the condition that he could say anything he wanted. He then proceeded to tell them how terrible their system was.

    However, in many ways, it is the easiest way of doing things–for everyone! There is constant pressure to do it. Many of my students practically beg me, “Tell me what you want me to tell you, and I will tell you.” Telling them that I want them to “understand” and to “think” frustrates them.