The Chinese Classroom

Posted on 21. May, 2008 by in Politics and Diplomacy

At first glance, it’s the picture of a certain ideal: a teacher standing at the head of a classroom with a piece of chalk in one hand, the students listening attentively and hanging on the teacher’s every word.  The students are quiet and reasonably well behaved, repeat like a chorus what the teacher asks them to repeat, and are otherwise silent while the teacher lectures. They ask no questions, and the teacher infrequently asks them to answer questions individually. More frequently, the class answers en mass. This is the picture of a typical Chinese classroom. It is has been this way for generations and the role of the teacher in China is at the heart of it.

From an early age, when youngsters in China first begin their education, up all the way through college, students are taught that the teacher is their parent away from home, their leader, and their light in the dark world of academia. The teacher is to be respected at all times, and what the teacher says is to be taken as gospel.  To question the teacher is disrespectful, and to ask questions pertaining to the material may indicate an unacceptable level of understanding – a loss of face both for the teacher and for the student.  And so it continues throughout the educational process: the teacher lectures, the student takes notes, memorizes facts and statistics and languages by rote repetition and stubborn memorization, and when the time comes for testing, the student invariably gives back all that they’ve absorbed pertaining to the subject at hand. The difference between the Chinese classroom and the Western classroom, where participation is individual and questioning the material is encouraged, is startling. Yet in order to have a better grasp on why the Chinese classroom is this way, one must understand not only the student/teacher dynamic and the concept of “face,” but also the historical and cultural background underlying the Chinese educational system.

In Chinese society, testing and evaluation based upon test results has been paramount for many hundreds of years. Historically, positions in the civil service depended upon the test takers ability to recite and interpret the classics in the Imperial examinations. Success could be measured by a candidate’s ability to recite appropriate passages from the classics as applied to particular problems of state. Memorization and learning by rote repetition was thereby established early in Chinese history, and has continued to this day.  By itself, this historical aspect only demonstrates why in the modern Chinese classroom students seem to only listen and repeat when told. But there is another factor at work: the cultural one.

The concept of individuality does not exist in China as it does in the West.  China is very much a group oriented society.  Social consciousness and knowing one’s place in a group has been at work in this country for thousands of years and is also very evident in contemporary China.  From the concept of the ‘dan wei’ or work unit, to the ‘ideal worker’ as exemplified by the quiet contributions of the quasi-mythical hero of the Cultural Revolution, Lei Feng, the exemplary citizen is not one who stands out, makes waves, or disturbs the status quo, but achieves quietly and for the greater good.  As typified in the classroom, speaking out of turn, questioning, or bringing attention upon oneself violates this principle, thus resulting in a more authoritarian classroom where the only voice heard is that of the teacher.

The typical Chinese classroom, a teacher-centric model where questioning is uncommon and rote memorization the norm, is not a new phenomenon.  It has developed through history Chinese history and is rooted in the cultural fabric of society.  In a country where social consciousness is paramount, the evolution of the Chinese classroom to its contemporary condition is a natural one, remaining true to its unique heritage.

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17 Responses to “The Chinese Classroom”

  1. Jessica Cronk 22 November 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    I have a question about the chinese classrooms. At the begining of class is there a greeting the class says in unison when the teacher comes in?

  2. Jill 3 February 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    This is how I always imagined the Chinese classroom: the epitome of order and discipline. Then, our school had a group of 10 to 12-year-old Chinese youths visit. Classrooms hosted two students for a week. I was in shock.

    The students wandered the room freely, refused to engage in material despite being competent at English, were rough and physical with my students during transitions and on the playground, spoke over other students and teachers and conversed during quiet times, looked up callous language on the internet during computer lab, and drew swastikas on their notebooks. I allowed them time to adjust and patiently explained (again and again) what I expected of them. One might suggest that they’re behavior was the result of my teaching. My American students, though relaxed in my classroom, maintain a high level of respect for adults and the classroom rules.

    I guess I am wondering… are all Chinese classrooms as you describe or are there classrooms in which students are given free-reign? All of the visiting Chinese students were disrespectful of their American teachers. I know this cannot be an accurate representation of the country’s youths!

  3. Peter Simon 24 September 2009 at 4:47 am #

    Doc, your text is highly informative and very useful, thank you. One question though. You say to the effect that it’s difficult to develop their critical thinking, because “it’s a boring topic. It’s a departure from tradition.” I think this means that tradition is not boring, meaning not thinking critically is interesting. Could be. I don’t know. I taught in SChina for three years but I still don’t know what’s interesting for the Chinese student of today besides basketball, chatting and doing nothing. Oh, watching TV-shows and playing computer games. Quite similar to young people in Eastern Europe, except for basketball. What have you found?

  4. Andrew 17 September 2009 at 8:22 pm #

    Hi Savannah. This post is from a previous contributor to the blog. Feedback is always welcomed- what are you looking for?

  5. Savannah 16 September 2009 at 9:23 am #

    man i am so anoid this is alot of information but i am not finding wat i am loking for, but this is intresting.

  6. Doc 14 September 2009 at 10:23 am #

    I really hate to use someone’s blog to promote my own blog (of sorts.) However, I wrote an article last spring that is on topic with this here, which may be of interest to some. It can be seen at http://www.oldcodger.org/china-letters/letter37.htm

    The meat of the subject can be found in the fourth paragraph onwards.

    My apologies to the blog owner here for this link.

    Doc

  7. thoi trang 4 September 2009 at 11:50 am #

    Not only there. Here in India also the same process is going on… I think mostly in all places this kind of teaching process is going on…
    by thoi trang

  8. maddy 3 September 2009 at 2:44 am #

    It is a fine post. It helps me to understand about the Chinese education in the classroom. This is normally happen in most of the places. Thanks for sharing this great experience with others.
    by
    autos

  9. Doc 11 June 2008 at 7:25 pm #

    I am a teacher here in China. Before coming to China, I taught in Thailand. The educational systems between the two countries are very similar. The primary difference between China and Thailand is that the students in China are more motivated to learn than their counterparts in Thailand. This can be attributed to many different factors, including, but not limited to, socio-economic conditions.

    China is unique, in that through its employment of foreign teachers, the teachers are allowed wide latitude in their teaching styles. However, a teaching style must be compatible with typical Asian culture. (I use Asian rather than Chinese because it is all quite similar.) The problem that I witness is that many of the foreign teachers are clueless about teaching and actually imparting knowledge.

    As for going to an American Uiversity, the student’s command of the English language will be critical. To graduate, the student will probably have to take a number of courses that are typically offered in a Bachelor’s program in the States, but lacking in China. One way to avoid taking those clases is getting a successful score on the various CLEP tests that are available. However, as stated, command of the spoken and written English language will probably be the biggest obstacle.

    Doc

  10. Ryan 11 June 2008 at 11:56 am #

    Thoughtful comments. I take it you’re a teacher here in China, David? I’m actually a student what would be considered one of the top tier universities, Bei Da, studying for a masters degree in international relations. Even here, I’ve found that par for the course is a professor-led class of about three hours where the professor talks and the students take notes. As an American, I often try to engage both the professor and my classmates on the material (as that’s the way I’ve been taught to learn) but my approach has been met with only mixed results. I agree with you, though, that it’s changing, if slowly, and that the methods of the past are gradually being replaced.

    As for the learning curve for a Chinese student going from a Chinese university to an American one, there will of course be the initial culture shock, but once the kid sees that engagement is routine, I’m sure they’ll be able to contribute once they acclimate. Certainly the amount of studying required won’t come as a huge shock.

  11. Doc 8 June 2008 at 3:08 am #

    There are about 4 different levels of Universities here in China. The top two levels are very intensive and the rote learning is being gotten away from. The two lower levels of Universities still rely on the rote learning and memorization to varying degrees. However, that does seem to be changing a bit.

    After the Universities, then there are the colleges. Basically, all these schools churn out are technical graduates. Rote learning serves them quite well.

    China is working towards being more progressive in the areas of education, but it is difficult to overcome the “traditional” beliefs and cultural influences. It is difficult to get students to start “thinking outside of the box” and one must lead into it gently. At the beginning of the year, it would take me about 40 minutes – half of the class time – to lead up to thinking outside of the box. Over the year, I now have to spend less time as the students are getting more comfortable with it. I have a few Chinese teachers that sit in on my classes – and they have asked me how I would teach their materials. Hence, they are willing to try new things once they see that something new can work.

    Unfortunately, as throughout Asia, a student cannot fail. All students must pass. This allows for mediocrity to prevail in many settings. Still, despite this, most students are motivated to do the best that they know how, so all is not lost.

    Doc

  12. Ollie 1 June 2008 at 12:07 am #

    This article is very ineresting and touch on a few of my concerns.
    I recently married, A lovely lady from China, Her son is attending the University in China, and will be moving to the USA to continue his education, do you think there will be a difficult learning curve for my son attending a college in the USA?

  13. Mike Olfe 29 May 2008 at 12:03 pm #

    For an amusing story on Chinese English-language education for the Olympics, see http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/25/books/review/Meyer2-t.html?_r=1&ref=review&oref=slogin

  14. David 28 May 2008 at 12:07 pm #

    @Raphael

    I wasn’t trying to point toward the political dimension, or even comment on what is better or worse, I was just curious about how people who study any academic discipline at a high level, or do research for example, break past the constraints of learning facts by rote to be able to create original thought by questioning assumptions…

    Does anyone know how Chinese universities handle this?

  15. Raphael Chan 27 May 2008 at 9:28 pm #

    Re: David’s comment:
    “I wonder how the Chinese who go on to university are able to move past the rote memorization aspect and get to the point where they question assumptions in order to get on to original thinking..”

    As outdated as some practices appear in some countries in comparison with Western culture (I’m Australian by the way), firstly it is a nation whose government prefers conformity.

    Secondly, in a more direct response to your thoughts, the indivdiuals who are inspired to original thinking head that way anyway, regardless of their indoctrination. That’s why both wealthy entrepreneurs (or perhaps I should refer to them as “Intrapreneurs” since it’s meant to be predominantly a Communist state) and dissidents exist.

    Actually, that’s the same as what happens in the West! There are only a minority of original thinkers who lead, for better or for worse, and the rest just follow under the name of original individual thought!

    Oops. Am I getting too politically opiniated for this comments section? If I am, then sorry and please just carry on any discussion away from here by emailing me directly at: raphael.svp@gmail.com.

  16. tekwrytr 27 May 2008 at 6:38 pm #

    Perhaps missing in the description is the additional responsibility placed on instructors in the Chinese educational system to assure that a transfer of knowledge actually takes place. That is, the requirement of clarity increases when there is a lack of feedback; with little or no feedback (other than relatively infrequent testing), it is essential that lectures be thoughtfully designed and delivered, to assure that knowledge is being transferred.
    tekwrytr

  17. David 27 May 2008 at 9:16 am #

    Great post. Nice window onto the group culture. I wonder how the Chinese who go on to university are able to move past the rote memorization aspect and get to the point where they question assumptions in order to get on to original thinking…Is there any difference in this between those who go to university in China and those who go abroad?


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