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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.