China First Hand

19 February 2006

Education, Education, Education

Filed under: Culture,Language — china1sthand @ 10:53 pm


Tony Blair may believe in it, but it has its limitations.


I went to tutor a 12-year old girl today. When I was 12 I didn’t have much homework. I spent these years of my life socialising and watching lots of TV. I was just starting to learn a second language – French – although ‘learn’ is probably an extreme word to use. Maybe I had memorised some numbers, but not much more. I expected to have trouble conversing with a girl this age.

Visions of me pointing at objects and saying the word for them disappeared immediately. She knew all the basics of the English language, so could understand questions and answer them in complete sentences. She was a very smart girl. She was also a good example of a Chinese child. In my mind, a key role for any teacher is to motivate because it is much easier to learn if you are interested in the subject. I wanted to find out this girl’s interests so that I could refer to them in my lessons. She completely understood the question. She just didn’t have an answer.

Study is the most important thing in Chinese culture. You must listen to the teacher, remember the facts they tell you, and recite them back. You don’t have time for trivial activities such as playing. It is an examinations culture, with expectations very high, and both parents placing their hopes on you.

Education obviously opens doors for the individual, and a qualified workforce raises the wealth of the whole country. This culture focuses on working hard, whether this is in the form of mental study or physical labour. I am sure this is a main contributory factor to the fast economic development today.

However, by working this way a lot is also lost. Most profits from companies in China are taken back to the home country. Jobs rely on foreign companies bringing their business ideas to China, because China has hardly any homegrown businesses. It is very clear to me why. Chinese children do as they are told and all follow pretty much the same path, so they do not learn skills of entrepreneurship. Even more importantly, they have hardly any time for play and consequently lack creativity. The Chinese government do realise this problem and have just started investing in creativity. They don’t have a chance. I chatted to an American on a train who is a business trainer specialising in creativity. He described his struggles with the Chinese people, and their lack of ability to ‘think outside the box’. If creativity is not learnt when people are naturally creative – as a child – then expecting an adult to grasp the concept, just ain’t gonna happen.

When it comes to language I think creativity is an interesting problem. My role as a tutor was to provide an opportunity for the student to gain one-to-one time that they would not get at school. In addition to practicing the drills they learnt in class, tuition offers the flexibility to be creative with the language. Language is, after all, the creative expression of your ideas. My friend found it much easier to develop her English when chatting with English people, which I think shows she understands the purpose of language. All other Chinese I have met perceive the tutoring as a ‘course’ that they would at some point ‘complete’. However many exams you take, you can never ‘know’ language. None of us know all the idioms and colloquialisms and perfect usage of language for any situation. It is an instrument of our thoughts, and therefore it changes with them. But I guess, in a simplistic view, all students still like some structure.

Oh, and how did I motivate this 12-year-old? We got away from the desk and played some games. Well, that and Cadbury’s chocolate…


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