Twenty-third in science. Thirty-first in math. As the grand old USA lags further behind the rest of the world in education, the temptation to model ourselves after countries that continuously churn out strong students grows. And when it comes to education, we could do far worse than to look at China and do likewise. While there was no national ranking for China, a recent global assessment placed Shanghai at the top of all three categories it tested: math, science, and reading. Hong Kong came in second, third, and fourth in those categories. For better or worse, here are 18 ways Americans can begin to learn like the Chinese.
- Hire a tutor:
To truly experience learning like the Chinese, you’ll need a tutor at your side. An estimated 80% of Chinese parents engage tutors for their children, either on a regular basis or before big exams like the infamous gaokao.
- Head to “cram school”:
While much tutoring in China is done one-on-one, so-called “cram schools” are also quite popular; so popular, in fact, the Ministry of Education had to pass a law barring the schools from serving children under age 6. The after-school education programs are comparable to American SAT prep classes and can cost thousands of dollars a year.
- Train teachers weekly:
Even the schools most interested in keeping teachers well-trained don’t require it weekly. In China, students have the benefit of learning under teachers who dedicate a half-day each week to being trained by a “master teacher.” Unlike in the U.S., this additional training is not for any extra credit, money, or certification; it is simply part of the job.
- Do more homework:
The typical American student is obsessed with minimizing homework time, but in China not only do some students spend four hours on homework every night of the week, some even assign themselves extra homework. Of course, all this homework comes with a price: it’s students’ No. 1 source of their lack of sleep.
- Abandon intellectual curiosity:
Students and their parents who have experienced both countries’ education systems are often shocked at the contrast between the levels of freedom students have in their learning. China is laser focused on standardized testing, despite fears that such focus is stifling innovation. If you really want to learn like the Chinese — which clearly is an excellent means of learning math and science — be prepared to see creativity fall by the wayside.
- Put in more hours:
One of the most visible differences between Chinese and American education is the length of time students put in studying. The Chinese are regularly cited as studying for 12 hours a day, either at school or at home. When the children are home, half of them are not allowed to play outside as it takes away from study time, according to their parents.
- Improve teachers’ pedagogical knowledge:
Studies have shown American students are at a disadvantage in their learning because their teachers trail their Chinese counterparts in their knowledge of teaching. (In one study, less than 5% of American teachers could create an accurate word problem for a math question, compared to 40% of Chinese ninth-graders.) To learn like the Chinese requires teachers who can engage students with relatable illustrations of the subject matter they are trying to teach.
- Cut out recess:
One of the cornerstones of American learning has been the idea that long periods of instruction should be broken up by a chance for kids to exercise in the fresh air. However, recess is not a part of the school day in China. And despite its proven benefits to kids, many American schools have already begun to do away with it.
- Learn in Chinese:
Granted, this is outside the realm of possibility for most Americans. But one intriguing explanation for Chinese students’ superiority in math is that English is too illogical and hinders math learning. For example, what we would read as “two-thirds” literally means, in Mandarin, “out of three parts, take two.” It’s a subtle difference but it illustrates the fact that the Chinese have the benefit of learning with a more logical language.
- Memorize, memorize, memorize:
China’s educational background is centuries of memorizing the writings of Confucius. As mentioned, Chinese education today focuses on standardized testing. The result is a culture dependent on rote memorization, which, again, can produce world-beating scores in math and science.
- Don’t ask questions:
Because they are so concerned with the concept of “face,” students do not ask teachers questions and vice versa because it would imply one or the other was not smart enough to either teach or understand the material. Students who need help wait until after class to approach the teacher. The obvious benefit for the class is the lesson is never interrupted by questions, although this could also be a negative as multiple students may also require further explanation.
- Turn on the pressure:
American students may feel stressed in high school around time for the SAT, and some parents may push their kids to excel in academics from an early age. But nowhere else in the world are children required to learn under such immense pressure as China. Polls have shown a majority of primary school children worrying “a lot” about exams. The competition for spots in the top universities in enormous, with the praise or shame of family and society hanging in the balance.
- Respect the teacher:
“Student stabs teacher” brings up way too many Google hits with American settings. They may be quiet, but Chinese students learn in an environment of mutual respect between themselves and the teacher. Hand-in-hand with that respect goes the ancient idea of following the teachings imparted from the teacher. In the past, these teachings were philosophical writings; today they’re math equations.
- Do your exercises:
While the unstructured fun of recess may be out, that doesn’t mean the Chinese neglect physical exercise in their learning regimen. By government mandate, at assigned times all students rub their eyes, both under ad over, to stay healthy. In the afternoon there are stretches in the aisles. These exercises will be part of students’ lives for no less than 12 years.
- Break out the IV:
Remember the pressure we said Chinese students are under? How else to explain a roomful of high school students hooked up to IVs pumping amino acids into their bodies to keep them studying longer for the dreaded gaokao university entrance exam. Now, come one American juniors studying for the SAT: let’s see those IVs!
- Don’t separate kids by learning ability:
In years past and continuing today, it has not been Chinese practice to separate gifted students from the rest of their peers. Instead, students are grouped at random early on and this grouping will remain practically unchanged throughout their school years, with stronger students serving as informal tutors for their struggling classmates.
- Require a foreign language early on:
Imagine if American students were so preoccupied with learning Spanish, some officials began to worry about their English skills. This is exactly what education is like in China, only their preoccupation is with learning English. The majority of students will spend 10 years or more learning the foreign language. If you want to learn like they do, pick up a beginner’s guide to Mandarin and study for a good decade or so.