At the end of the first semester of the Special Curriculum one of our brightest students dropped out. It wasn’t because she wasn’t learning, and it wasn’t because she feared the instability. She’d received a C in gym class because she refused to go despite repeated warnings. Her mother came everyday to complain about the grade, but we refused to budge. ‘My girl has been the top of her class since kindergarten, and all her teachers love her,’ she told us. ‘But here you don’t care about her at all.’
While building the curriculum I discovered that our problem students were typically those who thrived in the traditional Chinese education system. They were also the very ones who questioned the value of the English curriculum, of learning critical reading and thinking skills, of participating in activities, of group work and co-operation, and of going to gym class. They preferred to memorize SAT vocabulary words, and would complain vocally if they only got an A instead of A+. But their transcripts were also the best: while they struggled and complained in the Special Curriculum they received the highest marks and praise in their Chinese classes.
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So why do such top-performing Chinese students have so many issues?
In the Peking University High School International Division admissions camp we’ve had a lot of students who did very well on tests but seemed ill-behaved, selfish or arrogant.
There was one admitted student, for example, who did well on tests and who seemed well-behaved and well-adjusted. But she couldn’t make up her mind whether to accept the offer, telling us that a traditional Chinese high school education would cover material ‘deeper.’
To prove her wrong I had her audit a summer class. This summer in Beijing I invited English teachers from the Newton, Massachusetts public school system to teach literature to my Shenzhen High School students.
The admissions camp student sat in the class transfixed and absorbed, as my senior one (grade ten) Shenzhen students and their American teacher read and discussed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The seminar was fast and intense. Afterwards I asked this student what she thought, and she told me the class was easy; she still thought that the Chinese curriculum was ‘deeper.’
I was confounded by the student’s reaction, but later a friend explained that ‘deeper’ for Chinese students meant a lot of memorizing. Having grown up and succeeded in the traditional Chinese education system this student who was bright, mature, and intent on going abroad believed in it so much that she thought memorizing was deep and thinking was shallow. This ought to be obvious – if you’re winning a game you think the game is good – but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.
The tragedy is that Chinese students who succeed in the Chinese educational system are often stubbornly setting themselves on a path of future failure.
Let’s go back to my student who dropped out of the programme. Because she did so well on tests her teachers spoiled her from an early age, and she’s used to teachers breaking the rules and making exceptions just for her. Indeed, China’s very best students are used to schools fighting for them as though they were American college football recruits.
That’s a lot of power for teenagers to have, and that’s why they become arrogant, narrow-minded, selfish, and irresponsible. And their life essentially ends when the one skill set they’ve developed (test-taking) becomes redundant, and they have to enter the workforce. A minority will adjust and change their ways, but the majority will go through life bitter and disappointed, frustrated and angry.
In my next article I’ll elaborate on this issue, explaining how Chinese schools recruit the brightest students, uses them, and then throws them away.