I was surprised to hear a high school principal here in China tell his school, one month before the big test, that "It is now time to stop teaching." He continued: "It is time to write continuously, to perfect your answers." And teachers did stop teaching. This was a city’s "Number One" school, which meant that it only took the best students because it had the best record for students passing the college entrance exam.
If the teachers stopped teaching, what did the students do in this last month? The 60 students per classroom kept up a low buzz as each muttered to themselves the perfect answers for the test, based on the previous year’s released questions. Teachers had spent the first eight months teaching-to-the-test. Now, this last month, it was the students’ burden to hammer those answers into their heads by speaking and writing the perfect answers that they hoped would again work on this year’s test.
Today across universities in China, students are facing their final tests these next two weeks. And they carry that high school method of study with them. I saw it at Inner Mongolia Normal University and South China Normal and every one of the other 16 Chinese universities I have visited, because I always arrive just before their final tests. They fill every bench on campus and are pacing on every sidewalk muttering out loud the perfect answers to drill into their heads.
High-stakes testing has a 2000-year history in Imperial China. Any child who could study could take the Imperial exams. Score high and it meant a wealthy life. China originated the meritocracy system. But it was a very narrow doorway in Imperial days. Today, that doorway is wider; it lets in more students. The guarantee of wealth is less. The pressure is even greater.
Two decades ago, China decided to copy our Research I university model. Although our universities supposedly reward teaching, research and service, the reality is that the University of Kansas and Princeton and MIT only reward research. So faculty retention and promotion in China is also based solely on research publication counts.
A Chinese professor enters an oversized class of from 60 to 120 students, throws a PowerPoint lecture on the screen, explains the PowerPoint (sometimes reading it word-for-word), and then asks students: "Any questions?" No Asian student will ask a question. If you do not understand, it is your fault. And to ask questions is to burden the teacher to re-explain and waste classmates’ time (although many of them do not understand either).
The professor then heads back to the office or lab to research and publish. Why waste time on quizzes or even mid-term tests? So with only the one final, students put off studying, and then cram like crazy before the final.
Even the building works against good teaching. I walk in to a beautiful new science building. The classrooms have state-of-the-art ceiling projectors for PowerPoints, and a screen at the front.
"Where is the blackboard or whiteboard?" I asked.
"We don’t use them," was the answer.
(I would even have been happy with an flat-screen ‘Elmo' projector to mark—but there was none.)
"What happens when a student has a question or extended idea?" I asked.
"They don’t," was the answer.
"They should," was my curt reply. It will take time. But Chinese professors who come back from experiencing Western teaching are not happy either.
And some of their next generation of high school biology teachers are being taught questioning.
At Northeast Normal University in Changchun last year, the lead question from the graduating student teachers was how to solve this dilemma. The top student had been hired to teach at their Number One high school, again because it had the highest pass rate on the leaving exam. His job would depend on keeping that school’s reputation, so he would be pressured to teach to the test and push drill work. But his biology teaching methods professor had taught him Western questioning. But the more class time he spent using questioning, the lower his students’ test scores.
We had a great discussion on how to use "creative insubordination" to infuse as much questioning as possible while not letting scores drop too much. China is going the right direction.
Meanwhile I am about to return to a state that is doomed to learn this lesson the hard way, having blindly adopted standardized science core curricula and testing. My high school colleagues will also have to use "creative insubordination" to hold the line, in a country going the wrong direction.