China’s national examination system, in which students’ aggregate score in six subjects over three days of examinations determine their university placement, is both brilliantly simple and devastatingly effective. China’s entire education system revolves around the national examination, which tests students’ ability to memorize and regurgitate, and willingness to recite orthodoxy. All schooling, from kindergarten onwards, is a prelude to that climactic meeting with destiny, and afterwards students forget what they’ve memorized, and cruise through university playing video games.
This system has made Chinese students literate and knowledgeable, but it also has also too many times made them incompetent and stupid. Let me emphasize this: the people best known for their respect for education and love of knowledge have constructed an education system that makes Chinese students, the very same hardworking and brilliant students who dominate international mathematics competitions and science laboratories, incompetent and stupid.
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Consider this analogy: the teenage body. How do we grow it to be fit and strong during the crucial years of puberty? A personal trainer would advise an exercise regime supplemented by good nutrition, fresh air, adequate sleep, and a positive attitude. The body needs to exert itself in order to develop properly, and a diverse and holistic, multi-functional and constant exercise regime is the most effective: a morning run, an afternoon game of tennis, and a long evening stroll. Also make sure to eat small but frequent meals of fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread and skinless chicken. Fresh air cleanses and rejuvenates the body, so make sure to enjoy the outdoors and sleep with the window open. A good night’s sleep after a good work-out promotes the growth of muscles. What’s also important is a cheerful outlook and positive attitude, as the body can’t grow properly if exposed to too much stress and negativity.
What neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered about this well-known knowledge about what benefits physical development also applies equally to mental development: strenuous exercise, a nutritious diet, fresh air, a good night’s rest, and high self-esteem all help develop the brain’s memory, puzzle-solving, and cognitive functions. As David Linden’s The Accidental Mind and Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself document, we are half-nature and half-nurture, and our brains need external stimuli in order to develop properly. There’s no evidence that listening to Mozart while sleeping and visiting the Metropolitan Museum on Sundays will make a child more intelligent than his genes will permit, but there’s plenty of evidence that sitting a child in front of a TV in a smoke-filled dark room all day will retard his mental development.
So consider a typical day in the life of a Chinese high school student. He is locked in a sterile white room, being lectured to from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, when he is expected to do homework and memorize textbooks. He’ll usually go to bed around eleven, but if he’s ‘smart and hardworking’ enough to test into one of China’s elite high schools his ‘dedicated and responsible’ teachers will give him so much homework that he will collapse out of exhaustion at three in the morning. On weekends he’ll lock himself in his room and play ‘Counterstrike,’ but if his parents are ‘loving and enlightened’ then he’ll go to weekend mathematics and English classes to get that one or two percentage edge over his classmates. He has neither an appetite nor interest outside class; in class he doesn’t ask questions or stare outside the window (although he may be asleep), so focused and committed is he on making his parents, his teachers, and his country proud. After three years of this exacting regime his body will be frail and weak, and his mind will be exhausted and stunted. After he passes the national examination he’ll quickly forget everything he’s memorized, and he’ll spend his university days improving his ‘Counterstrike’ skills, which is his one and only passion.
He won’t know how to question and to think. He won’t know how to sustain an intelligent conversation or seek self-improvement. His head will be stuffed with trivial knowledge, and he won’t know how to send a polite and effective e-mail. He’ll be socially awkward, and have the maturity of a 12-year-old. But he’ll have passed the national examination and will have hopefully mastered ‘Counterstrike’ —and so when looking for work he’ll expect a lot of responsibility and a big pay cheque.
If all China’s national examination system did was make many Chinese students incompetent, then I guess that wouldn’t be so bad. There is, after all, a gifted and talented cohort of Chinese students, as multinationals and US graduate schools can attest to, who survive the system. But there’s in fact a much more fearsome problem with the national examination: it trains students to be utilitarian and unethical.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes how countless psychological studies show that rewarding employees for results can be dangerous: this approach blinds them into short-term narrow goals (thus decreasing their creativity), encourages unethical behavior, and ultimately lowers their morale as well as commitment to their job. Mr. Pink compares this reward mechanism to a drug that will jolt workers into performing fast before ultimately depressing them and lowering their self-esteem.
In reading the book I thought that Mr. Pink could have been describing China’s education system. Effective parents and educators know that they shouldn’t reward a child for his performance on tests, but rather should offer positive specific feedback for effort and attitude. But in China, all that matters are test scores, and students have been indoctrinated to see their point of pride, raison d’être, and even their identity as their test scores. That’s why Chinese students, contrary to popular perception, see learning as pointless, hate studying, and commonly cheat on tests.
China’s national examination system stunts the physical, emotional, and mental development of students, making them anti-social and ultimately unemployable. Moreover, because this system encourages individual competition in a zero sum game, it fosters unethical and short-sighted behavior among students, behavior that is an inherent instability in the system. But, as employment prospects for fresh university students grow dimmer and cheating becomes even more rampant, the system has only more grown more entrenched and stronger, to the point where elementary school children now must stay up until midnight to do homework.
How is this possible? I’ll cover that tomorrow.