China Power

Resistance Futile in Chinese Class

Clarity, centring, choice, commitment and challenge all help with learning. Do Chinese classrooms have any?

Last week, I visited a Shenzhen elementary school in a haunting but revelatory experience. 

I sat in on a grade one English class taught by the school’s best English teacher, an attractive twenty-something Chinese woman dressed in a white blouse and black skirt.  This was a ‘show classroom,’ a class performed by the same teacher with the same 35 students for visiting ‘dignitaries.’ Within 40 minutes, the teacher, with control and precision, went from textbook reading to group work to audio-visual vocabulary drilling back to group work, and concluded with vocabulary testing. 

In the dim cramped classroom, I noticed a student who yawned and stretched his arms and legs, and complained how simple and boring the class was. 

While the class seemed like a frenzy of activity, very little learning actually occurred. First graders are sponges, and ought to be reading English children’s books; instead, they just did simple vocabulary drills.

Much more perturbing was that the teacher didn’t seem to notice the children’s presence. In another instance of form over substance in China, the teacher stood on her lectern, and performed her routine without engaging the students and offering them constructive feedback. And group work, in which the students splintered off to reinforce each other’s Chinglish, seemed like the herding of sheep. The disinterest of the teacher translated into apathy, laziness, and dullness among the students. 

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A good elementary school teacher appreciates and cherishes the curiosity, energy, and diversity of her first grade classroom. But Chinese elementary school teachers have been taught to ignore students who raise hands, silence students who ask questions, and punish any students who stand out. And this Chinese woman was doing her job rather too well.    

By creating a stale, structured, and simplistic learning environment, she was crushing the natural enthusiasm and curiosity of her students. It was a disheartening sight:  Siting in the back of the classroom, I could see the windows darken and the walls close in around the students as they sought eagerly and innocently to explore the world, challenge boundaries, and open their minds.      

What I was witnessing in that Shenzhen first grade classroom was, in other words, nothing less than the methodical and mechanical dismantling of the human soul. As I walked around the campus, I noticed that the spark in the eyes of the first graders had died out in the older kids – a natural consequence of the ‘education’ they were receiving. Resistance is, indeed, futile.    

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the qualities of an ideal learning environment that could be applied to the family home, the school classroom, and the work office: 

‘The family context promoting optimal experience could be described as having five characteristics. The first one is clarity: the teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect from them – goals and feedback in the family interaction are unambiguous. The second is centering, or the children’s perception that their parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences, rather than being preoccupied with whether they will be getting into a good college or obtaining a well-paying job. Next is the issue of choice: children feel that they have a variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules – as long as they are prepared to face the consequences. The fourth differentiating characteristic is commitment, or the trust that allows the child to feel comfortable enough to set aside the shield of his defences, and become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in. And finally there is challenge, or the parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.’

The Shenzhen elementary school classroom fails on all five counts. The classroom suffered from hypocrisy (the teacher pretended to want the students to learn, while really wanting them to just sit still), from an emphasis on test performance, from rigidity, from teacher apathy and disengagement, and from a repetitive mundaneness.

At the end of my visit, I went into a sixth grade classroom where they were immersed in an English listening test. I walked around, as the students listened to an English audio recording; the recording would pronounce an English word, and the students had to circle the word on their multiple-choice answer sheet. I noticed a particularly serious student, and looked at her answer sheet. Her answers were all wrong. In fact, as I looked closer, I couldn’t find any of the correct answers on her page. When I looked over at her neighbour’s test sheet, I realized why: she was on the wrong page of the test book. 

Here was this young Chinese girl who looked so serious, but really didn’t even care enough to find the right test page. Or maybe she just knew something the other kids didn’t.