China's students are taking on the world

A teacher at Highline Community College on a faculty exchange in Shanghai discovers that young Chinese no longer just 'memorize and regurgitate.' Urged on by their nation's leaders, they want to be innovators.
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Cooking healthy foods at Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle.

A teacher at Highline Community College on a faculty exchange in Shanghai discovers that young Chinese no longer just 'memorize and regurgitate.' Urged on by their nation's leaders, they want to be innovators.

Over the past eight years my husband and I lived in China for several academic terms while I taught English at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. SJTU, one of the top universities in the country, has a faculty exchange program with my college, Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington. Every time Dick and I stay in Shanghai — in 2002, 2008, and now 2010 &mdash we're awed and mystified all over again.

Each day there I'm stuffed full as a pig with information, new flavors and smells, and fresh aspects of this realization: China is a dragon on the move. The Communist Party embraces capitalism within communism, and a culture that reveres tradition is now welcoming new wealth and progress.

Some 1.3 billion people work in this nation approximately the size of the U.S., a land with the largest hydroelectric dam project in the world, the building of which forced the relocation of millions of people. Mass relocations happen daily as projects move quickly forward — new subway lines (twelve in Shanghai now), new highways to meet the demand for more cars, and skyscrapers to accommodate more people who can afford to live in the cities. People adapt, as the Chinese always have in their personal lives, for the sake of the motherland. They are taught from childhood about the importance of loyalty to their families and to their country.

One of my Ph.D. students, who was earning his graduate degree in computer science, said, "In my childhood, I had dreamed to become a famous scientist. However, no matter whether I could become a famous scientist, it is my duty to develop the new technology." His duty is to be used as the country needs him, and the country needs more engineers, programmers, mathematicians, and physicists.

June 8, 2010: It was make-or-break time for high school seniors across China. Students hunched over the first day of their national college entrance exams in locations around the country. This, as the Shanghai Daily headlined, was 'ꀜthe final frontier.'ꀝ Parents of the 9.57 million students who took the exams this year waited outside the testing locations for news.

Silence reigned everywhere near these testing sites, a silence especially strange in noisy cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Construction in the vicinity stopped. Drivers who honked their cars or trucks were fined. Some families had spent more than they could afford on a hotel room close to the place where their son or daughter would sit for the exam, so that traveling time wouldn't add to their child'ꀙs stress. Ambulances waited outside the testing sites in case students fainted or became ill from the strain.

Inside many locations the students were watched with surveillance cameras this year, according to the Shanghai Daily. Metal detectors installed at most sites would "prevent candidates from taking any electronic or battery-driven devices — apart from basic calculators — into classrooms ... after a cheating scandal in northeast China'ꀙs Jilin Province ignited a national outcry last year." More police were in evidence, as well as "disciplinary inspectors." The test papers were kept in a vault until exam time, and in some places, military troops ensured 'ꀜsecurity in transporting test papers.'ꀝ

Students taking the exam knew: Their scores would determine the rest of their lives. Education is mandatory and paid for by the government in China only through grade nine. They were the best students, the ones who had passed the ninth grade exams, the ones whose families could afford to pay for their education from tenth to twelfth grade. Students who scored exceptionally well on the college entrance exams would go to universities such as Peking, Fudan, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, or SJTU. Those with merely high scores would go to lesser known universities. The rest would simply become shopkeepers, waiters, or taxi-drivers.

The fates at stake were not only their own. With one-child families the norm, each family'ꀙs future and income rested on its child'ꀙs performance in the exams. The best jobs used to be in the courts and in government. Now the top jobs go to people who have degrees in science and technology. No wonder some students faint during the exam, or become ill or forget all they learned.

Education has been a strong thread in China'ꀙs fabric for thousands of years, and the ability to regurgitate memorized information has long determined an individual's place in society. Not long ago students all used to sit in narrow chairs bolted to the floor, looking up and listening to their teachers dispense knowledge from behind a lectern on a raised platform. As one of my students, whose English name was Wolf, said, "We were not asked to think, just to write what we were told."

Chinese get good at memorizing. Clerks remember what you bought the last time and how much you spent. Teachers remember which student earned which grade for which assignment. Students remember poems by Li Bai (known as Li Po in the United States) and dozens of other poets they learned in grade school. They remember math equations that extend the width of a page. They give a three-minute impromptu speech after 15 minutes of preparation time. They memorize English — with a vocabulary range that outshines that of most American students.

College is a struggle, though not because the course work is rigorous. Students confided, "If you make it into a university, you will graduate." They struggle because they live in small dorm rooms with other students (usually four students per room) away from home and family. It's against the law for students to marry, so they may worry about a girlfriend or boyfriend back home, but mostly they worry about the burden their education puts on their family.

At SJTU tuition costs about 4,000 Renminbi or RMB ($600) per semester, the dorm rooms cost 1,000 RMB, and additional money is needed for food, clothing, etc. To put this in perspective, SJTU professors earn approximately 5,000 RMB a month. A sprinkling of students may work part time during the summer, but a university student'ꀙs full-time job is to be a student who builds a life around the six or so hours a day of classes and school-related activities, with three meals at one of the five main canteens.

The students'ꀙ future lives are set by the major they're in, though some students question whether they want, after all, to be an engineer or physicist. My student Alf wondered aloud, "Do I really want to major in math? My passion is psychology — understanding why people do things." But the country needs mathematicians in its great technology leap forward, and a degree in math guarantees a good job that pays well, whereas a degree in psychology might not.

Students work hard to learn English, the international language. Many take English names: Laura, Ashley, Andy, David. Others have less common names: White, Welling, Mars, Eleven. They are finding their way in two languages and an ever-widening world, to succeed not just for themselves but for their families and for their country. In a speech at Cambridge in 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao said: "Today, 300 million Chinese are learning English. . . . Had we not learned from others through exchanges and enriched ourselves by drawing on others'ꀙ experiences, we would not have enjoyed today's prosperity and progress."

That progress is reflected at SJTU in several ways. The main campus, built in the past several years in the Shanghai suburb of Minhang, provides approximately 30,000 students with modern laboratories and Internet connections. Foreigners like my colleagues and me from Highline are introducing a new pedagogy that includes classrooms with movable tables and chairs. And some students are being admitted without taking the dreaded entrance exams. That was the case at SJTU in 2008 for 150 students who had earned the top grades in high school and won math and physics contests. They anguished in June that year over their classmates who were taking the exams while they took an intensive ten-week program to help them get ready for university-level work — math, physics, computer skills, and English. In my class, they had to discuss and present in front of their peers in English for several hours a day.

These students didn't just repeat what they were told, and compared to my students in 2002, when I first taught at SJTU, they asked more questions. "What do you think of our media?" "What is China'ꀙs future?" "How can you live a happy life?" "What do you think of our one-child policy?" "What about gun control?" "What is the secret of America'ꀙs genius?"

They voiced their opinions, too. "I think China'ꀙs future is not so bright," a young man said. "I am not optimistic." "I think corruption is our worst enemy," said another. "I think we have too many people and that is a problem," a young woman added.

In a speech this June to more than 1,400 scientists and engineers in Beijing, President Hu Jintao stressed the importance of science and technology in "building an innovative nation" and improving "innovative abilities." But in 2002, well before Hu Jintao's speech, one of my students had told me that Chinese people "needed to be more creative, like Americans. Then China would really become a great force." This year even more students realize that in technology, in science, and in the arts — in almost every field — creativity is a vital element.

A student named White described how in primary school he unthinkingly imitated his classmates. One day when some of them stood up, he stood up, too, until his teacher asked him why. "I stand up because they do," he replied. His teacher explained that his classmates stood up because they couldn'ꀙt see the formula she'ꀙd written low on the blackboard. "I could hear my classmates laugh, and I was ashamed," said White. "I realized that I shouldn'ꀙt follow others blindly. Eventually I came to realize that everything should be decided by myself. Twenty years after that lesson I remember it by heart deeply."

Last December Hu Jintao called on the country's enterprises to recruit more talented people and strengthen research and innovation in order to facilitate the transition from "made in China" to "created in China." My students know this. It's why they're willing to stand up in front of their classmates to give a speech in English. Why they want to know about the rest of the world — the United States especially. Why they listen intently as they strain to understand, some for the first time, a native speaker. As I have them form groups and work on projects together, as I teach and ask questions not from a raised platform behind a lectern or desk but walking among them, they are learning to depend not only on remembering but on being creative and adaptable.

Alf, for example, may choose mathematics as his career after all, but he could change course. He and the other students want to believe what Premier Wen Jiabao said at Cambridge: "The future belongs to the younger generation."


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