China and Chips: Sulking instead of getting it right

[The following was written in response to a discussion on the Chinese educational establishment, hence the focus. However, as the analysis makes clear, it has a wider application in terms of China’s attitude to itself and the rest of the world – the western world in particular]

China and rote-learning

As with many another ‘Chinese tradition’, China’s rote-learning methodology is no tradition at all. It’s an obvious approach to education that’s outdated, and is typical of what would have been standard in western education a hundred years ago without all the research into outcomes. As you say, it doesn’t promote the innovation and adaptability required by a modern economy, nor were there so many disciplines in former times. Another factor I’d throw in there was that the grammar-translation method of language teaching – which is what this approach embraces – was fine in the west, and in China, when it was highly unlikely you’d ever need a language for direct communication, (especially if learning Latin given there weren’t that many ancient Romans around and few people ever met the Pope), but it is rendered dysfunctional as a means of teaching for such things as answering a telephone to a potential customer in a modern business environment.

When it comes to Chinese tests, having seen a few of them myself, there’s a tendency for the examiner to want to show how clever he – almost certainly ‘he’ – is in the ‘Let’s see if I can trip you up here’ formulation of the questions, which is fine for parlour games but less-than helpful when it comes to finding out what a student has learned. “Ah, I misdirected you there and you fell for it. Aren’t I clever?” is not the right approach to exam composition in any method of teaching.

I agree with you insofar as some procedural thinking is best taught with accuracy in mind, and the ‘New Maths’ that was all the rage in my own schooldays in the UK whereby getting the answer right not mattering much at all was fine for English literature, but perhaps a bit sloppy in the sciences.


China is indeed fast-developing, but consider the figures. The latest boast is it leads the world in the number of new patents. The problem is that many of those patents are reformulated western ideas – rip-offs, basically – and having spoken with a few people who are in the business of monetising patents, there’s precious little uptake for what they have to offer. We only have to consider how many innovations China has actually come up with in recent years. Stumped? Me too.

The other figure they touted for a while was the number of academic papers the nation produces, but again, the same applies. Some international organisations that collect such papers don’t bother with all the bumph China makes available to them given a lot of it is just that, and the measure of the quality of academic papers is citations, something for which China scores very poorly.

As for its success economically, being the second-largest economy in the world is indeed something to boast about. However, the figures I’ve seen from four organisations for GDP per capita ranked China – in 2013 – (I guess the most recent figures available), between 82nd and 89th in the world. Somehow, though, the west is falling for it, and I’ve seen a business magazine that prides itself on being informative with a ‘Five ways to emulate the successful Chinese manager’ article which, when you consider it, is rather odd. (Point number one was ‘punctuality’, so that’ll give you some idea of what the Chinese consider to be advanced managerial techniques. Moreover, it was definitely one of those items where the obvious was stated in the very areas where China fails. Whenever the obvious is stated in China as a national quality, it usually means it is something obvious that’s lacking. I could never understand China’s proud boast that it is ‘A Nation of Four Seasons’ until I’d been here a while and realised it only has two).

Students heading west

As for the contention that pumping students through western universities is smart, I’m not sure it is so smart when those students return home to find they can’t access their email, can’t keep up with their favourite soap operas, and are told they ought to be studying Mao Thought instead of partying at Christmas. And again, it’s about quality. Western educational establishments have themselves become corrupted now, and are following the money. They have Mickey-Mouse courses filled with Chinese students. They know the students’ parents aren’t paying for education, they’re paying for a degree, and a degree is what they’re going to give them so long as the cash rolls in. Many a western university now is working, quite blatantly, on a two-tier system of genuine courses, and money-spinners, with most of the Chinese students not getting the real deal for all the money they’re paying. It’s also not very smart when the motive Chinese students have for going abroad is the homegrown system being so dismal. If American or British students were going in such vast numbers to Chinese universities for a better education, I’m not sure how we’d consider that to be ‘smart’ on our side.

The latest innovation – to try and cut anything western out of the education system and to plug in more propaganda – is hardly going to help raise standards.

The chip on China’s shoulder

A seeming digression, but with purpose. The recent political meeting [the 2015 congress] has been most imposing. We watch as these people make their points with serious intensity, behind them the the announcement in bold letters that this is the third plenum of the twelfth triumvirate of the forty-third great Chinese wotsit and er… okay, hang on a minute, I can read that and I can’t read Chinese. What’s it doing there in English? I don’t remember David Cameron or Barack Obama making grandiose statements to their citizenry about the forward path for their nations under a whacking-great sign in Chinese. Or, to bring it back on topic, the recently much-vaunted scores in the international PISA test for maths came as a result of horse-trading whereby the rest of the world had entire nations represented, good and bad, while China only the better educational establishments in Shanghai, a city which China uses to experiment with westernised educational methodologies.

So to the point of the digression. China has a huge chip on its shoulder, and that is more evident under the leadership of Xi than I’ve previously seen it be. It’s not enough to say China is like the child at the back of the class sulking. That’s too simple an analysis, too simple a psychology. China is the child who wants to get it right, who even could get it right, who wants praise, but who lacks in self-confidence. It says the lessons are stupid, but then cheats at the exams in order to try and impress the teacher. Moreover, it’s a child who responds to that self-imposed deficiency with bullish boasting and a boorish attitude towards the other children.

China should be itself

It is, quite frankly, pathetic, because China has a great deal to offer if it would just be itself and join in instead of sulking.

It doesn’t want its citizenry to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but it doesn’t push its own far-more colourful and interesting Lovers’ Day. It doesn’t want its citizenry to watch western soap operas, but imposes restrictions on its own output such that equally good programmes are not made. It doesn’t want its youth listening to western pop music, but its own vibrant music scene goes unacknowledged and remains underground while it tries to impress with another grand extravaganza backing another tired, dull, middle-of-the-road ballad for grandma backed with a westernised arrangement given it’s much more important in China these days to be expert with the violin than with the erhu.

China needs to be itself, to stop wanting to be like everyone else while believing it can’t be, and insisting it is being itself when it’s not.

That is the underlying malaise in China, and it applies to the education system as it seems to apply to just about everything else. You’re talking about an ideal situation here in the comparison of the strengths of competing methodologies. The point being missed is that China doesn’t just get it wrong by having a methodology unsuited to the times. It gets it wrong by not even doing a good job with that anachronism.

China should lose the chip on its shoulder, stop trying to impress with flimflam, and realise it can get it right. It can’t fulfil its potential until it does.

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