October 2, 2015, by Tony Hong

Broadening my horizon: What lessons can Chinese education and their students teach me?

By Esther van Deelen,

Student of UNNC Summer School 2015.

As a primary school teacher I’ve been involved in the Dutch educational system since 2006. I’ve taught a lot of different classes and I’ve seen a lot of different schools. As in China, the Dutch government wants highly educated teachers and so I received a scholarship to get my masters. That’s how I got to study educational sciences and got confronted with China as a potentially inspiring educational system. How is it that they seem to be in the top three on all the international comparisons in education?

Firstly, I’ve learned that Shanghai and Hong Kong aren’t representative of Chinese education. They’re large urban areas and the educational quality is different from rural land. But why is it different then? In the Netherlands, it is not if you look at the quality of teachers and schools. It could even have a negative effect on the results if you go to certain areas in the city where the main focus isn’t teaching but upbringing. Research on China shows that rural areas are lacking in giving qualitative education and class rooms tend to be bigger, but the Ministry of Education is aware of these issues and is trying to eliminate them.

Secondly, I spoke to several students and they all addressed the stress they have felt to pass exams like the Gaokao (college entrance exam). The grades on this exam being the end result of a long road of individual rote learning until late at night. Up to the point that they were being sleep deprived. If I look back on my own experience, my main focus was being with friends and if I was sleep deprived it surely wasn’t because I was studying too much. It’s not that I didn’t want to learn anything and I didn’t want to do well on tests. I was quite a serious student actually. I just felt there were a lot of other important things in my life as well and those are the things I still remember.

Thirdly, our Dutch educational mentality is sometimes referred to as ‘a six culture’. Meaning that we just want to pass or exams (scale 1-10, 6 you’ll pass) and don’t really care about the grade. Chinese students seem to have the opposite attitude. The Dutch are perceived as having the tendency to think it’s OK if you’re not excelling in all subjects. If your mom wasn’t good in maths, you might not be great in it as well and that’s OK. When I told this to a Chinese student she nearly fainted. “How is it possible that your parents didn’t support you to be your best?” she asked. It’s not that they didn’t support me, they just didn’t pressure me. Here I experienced that we come from totally different backgrounds.

Is one system or attitude better than another? Recent studies do show that Dutch children are among the happiest children in the world. That counts for something. We still do manage to compete with other countries, but will we keep up? What rationale do we have? It depends on who you ask: the government, businesses, teachers, parents or children. They will give you different answers and depending on that, the lessons learned also differ. The main lessons I as an educational professional learnt is you can’t just look at rankings and say that some countries are doing better than others. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. There are so many things that make up a culture and even within that culture there are so many differences. There is still so much left to learn. China, I will be back.

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