Friday, October 28, 2011

Why the Chinese Are Good At School

Once again, the west is amazed at China's academic prowess. Why are the Chinese so good at school?

China's education performance - at least in cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong - seems to be as spectacular as the country's breakneck economic expansion, outperforming many more advanced countries.

But what is behind this success?

Eyebrows were raised when the results of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's international maths, science and reading tests - the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests - were published.

Shanghai, taking part for the first time, came top in all three subjects.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong which was performing well in the last decade of British rule, has gone from good to great. In this global ranking, it came fourth in reading, second in maths and third in science.

These two Chinese cities - there was no national ranking for China - had outstripped leading education systems around the world.

The results for Beijing, not yet released, are not quite as spectacular. "But they are still high," says Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's head of education statistics and indicators.

Cheng Kai-Ming, Professor of Education at Hong Kong University, and closely involved in the Hong Kong and Shanghai tests, puts the results down to "a devotion to education not shared by some other cultures".
How China is Winning the School Race (BBC)

Why is there such a devotion to education in China? It turns out the roots of it go a long way back. China was the first country in the world to require the administrators of its vast empire to take an examination for qualifications. This was begun ages ago, all the way back in the 600's A.D., when Europe was in the throes of the Dark Ages after the collapse of Rome. Many centuries later, the British instituted a similar system in concept to administer their far-flung empire. So it's just my opinion, but I believe that the roots of China's educational progress are a consequence of its history. Here's Wikipedia on the subject:

The Imperial examination was an examination system in Imperial China designed to select the best administrative officials for the state's bureaucracy. This system had a huge influence on both society and culture in Imperial China and was directly responsible for the creation of a class of scholar-bureaucrats irrespective of their family pedigree. Neighboring Asian countries such as Vietnam, Korea, and Ryukyu also implemented similar systems to draw in their top national talent.

Established in 605 during the Sui Dynasty, the system was used only on a small scale during the Tang Dynasty. Under the Song dynasty the emperors expanded the examinations and the government school system in order to counter the influence of military aristocrats, increasing the number of those who passed the exams to more than four to five times that of the Tang. Thus the system played a key role in the emergence of the scholar-officials, who came to dominate society. Under the Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty, the system contributed to the narrowness of intellectual life and the autocratic power of the emperor. The system continued with some modifications until its 1905 abolition under the Qing Dynasty. The system had a history (with brief interruptions, e.g. at the beginning of the Yuan dynasty) of 1,300 years. The modern examination system for selecting civil service staff also indirectly evolved from the imperial one.

Thus it seems inevitable that the Chinese would be superior at modern schooling, which is ultimately based on a Chinese model - sitting still, passively absorbing information and regurgitating it under controlled conditions in order to fit into a faceless bureaucracy and follow orders. The U.S. educational model is based on this via the Prussian educational system.

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