Different Paths

Ask anyone about the central problem facing Chinese education and they will undoubtedly name the goakao. The pressure of standardized tests is blamed for the conformity of students, the dull orthodoxy of teaching methods and the lack of creativity and critique in the class.

Recently, however, I have begun to question this widespread assumption. After all, many other countries (India and America, for example) rely heavily on testing with markedly different results.

Contemporary Chinese culture is intensely – almost fanatically – streamlined.  Parents trained in discovering their child’s ‘unique strengths’ can find it deeply disconcerting. In China the tendency is to judge everyone according to the same metric. The best students (with the highest gaokao results) will all chose the same disciplines, in the same universities, in the same order.

A friend’s daughter who won a full scholarship to Amherst to study science, for example, was being pressured to go into finance. Becoming a scientist was judged to be just too risky. In China there is one – and only one -road to success.

The result is a severe competitiveness in which even preschoolers are publicly ranked.

This obsession with status seems particularly acute in the realm of education. Another friend attending a conference at Fudan was struck that the first question from everyone’s lips was: “what is the rank of your university?” This issue is far murkier in Canada–- and subject to some debate. The most reliable answer undoubtedly comes from the ‘academic ranking of world universities‘  put out by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.

In its attempts to breed a creative population it is this cultural attitude  – more than anything else –  that needs to be transformed. When asked how he chose his career, one of Shanghai most successful DJ’s replied “by being a bad student.” Through this ‘failure’ he was driven to discover something he was passionate about — and therefore good at.

This idea – that you should have a degree of passion for what you do – is still alien to many, if not most, Chinese. There are certainly sectors in North America where the trend for fulfilling work has gone too far – sometimes you need to just pay the bills.  Yet, in China pragmatism – perhaps an inevitable result of decades of poverty – has become stifling. Chinese society will only become truly innovative when capable people stop all choosing to travel along the same – well-trodden -path. This deep cultural change is already starting to occur. But it is something that no amount of goakao reform can, by itself, ever hope to achieve.

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