Force feeding eggs to students isn’t quite what parents expect to occur in the classroom. But Lenora Chu’s son, who attended preschool in Shanghai, returned home one day to tell her that’s exactly what happened to him.
Chu, the author of "Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,” moved to Shanghai from the United States and decided to enroll her 3-year-old son, Rainey, in one of the city’s public schools. When he came home one afternoon during the first week of school, he told her that his teacher fed all the students eggs until they were forced to swallow.
“He kept spitting it out, kept spitting it out, and she just kept putting the next spoonful in,” Chu said. “By the fourth time, he had no choice but to eat the egg.”
She says this experience, unpleasant as it may seem, reflects a key belief in the Chinese education system: “Teacher knows best.”
That is the great conundrum of the Chinese way. They think that sometimes your kids just have to do things they don't want to do.
Teachers can make students do things they don’t want to do if the teacher thinks it will benefit them — like eat eggs. But, by suppressing individual will and emphasizing respect for authority, the Chinese are able to make progress. Rainey now loves to eat eggs — so the outcome might be desirable, even when the methods aren’t.
“That is the great conundrum of the Chinese way,” Chu said. “They think that sometimes your kids just have to do things they don’t want to do.”
And that could be anything from eating foods they want to learning math.
In China, mastering academic subjects is paramount, since tests are “much more monumental to a child’s success” than in American education, Chu says. In the U.S., there are lots of options for students who don’t get the highest exam scores and don’t get into their top-choice college. They might consider community college, for example. But China hasn’t built out a system of alternatives yet, and relies on a “high-stakes, exam-based system.”
Chu says it used to be that there was a factory job waiting for those kids that didn’t get high exam scores. But with China's economy slowing down and the manufacturing base beginning to move to other parts of Southeast Asia, those factory jobs that used to be available just aren’t there anymore.
“This is going to be a huge source of instability,” Chu said. “China was built on promising prosperity and wealth, and we’re going to start seeing some fraying around the edges."
With that instability, some parents are going to great lengths to make sure their children get an education that will adequately prepare them to excel. One father in Chu’s book divorced and remarried, just so his son could attend a high-caliber school in Shanghai instead of a rural school.
“Nobody wants to raise a kid in the countryside because the odds are so much harder for success,” she said.
This illustrates the ties to socioeconomic status: where students go to school can have a huge impact on their success — and whether the family is wealthy makes a difference, too, because money can pay for test prep and extracurriculars.
Though socioeconomic status may help students prepare for entrance exams, when the time comes to actually take those exams, the results that students earn are tied to hard work — and that idea relates to how Chinese educators view academic achievement in the classroom and beyond.
People forget that about creativity. You still need expertise and knowledge.
The message is that, “every kid can get this with enough effort,” Chu says. And it translates to the belief that every student can master difficult subjects, regardless of innate talent or intelligence.
There is a flaw to focusing only on hard work and always obeying authority figures, according to Chu: “Kids are not encouraged to express themselves independently or read what they want to read," she said.
Even though the Chinese education system has its problems — like stifling independence or limiting the freedom to explore — there is one thing it does really well, according to Chu. She says that attitudes toward education, which emphasize hard work and respect for elders, allow the country to make great progress.
And the focus on hard work doesn’t necessarily crush imagination altogether, though it can suppress it if parents don’t allow space at home for kids to explore their interests freely. Chu says that having necessary information and knowledge can actually supplement creativity, not quash it.
“People forget that about creativity. You still need expertise and knowledge," she said.