Chinese “education”

If you’ve got kids at home, you’re probably worried about, or at least interested in the decisions made by your local school board, PTA and teacher’s unions.  You may even be involved to some extent in the process (kudo’s to you if you are).  At the very least you’re paying taxes and helping you child with homework.

But if you’re doing business in China, there is another school system that you should be at least as worried about: The Chinese System.

In case you had any delusions where this was heading, let me quote from one of the best new blogs on China that I’ve come across, The Diplomat’s China Power Blog and their recent series on Chinese Education:

This system has made Chinese students literate and knowledgeable, but it also has also too many times made them incompetent and stupid. Let me emphasize this: the people best known for their respect for education and love of knowledge have constructed an education system that makes Chinese students, the very same hardworking and brilliant students who dominate international mathematics competitions and science laboratories, incompetent and stupid.

I’ve been making the same points ever since I taught English at university in Chongqing 15 years ago.  Aside from the fact that you should question the quality of any school that gave me an English teaching position, the system in general is not helping China’s future in any way, shape or form.  The best and the brightest (or at least those with the richest parents) are fleeing the country for better schools and “real” education elsewhere–at least they’re getting a lesson in capitalism, eh?!

A couple of personal examples.

1. MA student in English can’t speak to random foreigner on the street.  Has a grammatically perfect 150 page thesis about a book (he later admits) he never read.

2. Parents of 10 year-old student hire professional business translator to write “student’s own” essay for school competition.  They spent a few hundred US dollars on 2 pages of Phd level grammar/vocab that the student couldn’t pronounce and didn’t understand.  They then tried to hire me to “coach” him through it.

3. English teacher starts talking to me on the street, she can’t understand a word I say.  Asks me the same question (“how are you today?”) over and over again but each time translating a different Q&A back to all the people behind her who are asking questions about the foreigner (not knowing that I understood everything they all said).

4. My wife needs to write a thesis to graduate from University in Shenzhen.  She is told to “copy it off line” so that the prof doesn’t “need to spend much time reading it.”  She was told that since her husband was a foreigner, her “English should be good enough.”

5. We have neighbors and employees that have told us that if their kids do not finish their homework, often falling asleep while doing it, the parents will do it for them so they don’t lose points in class!!

There are many books and blogs that have nothing directly to do with foreigners doing business in China.  But many of these other source materials provide significant insight into the mindset of Chinese in general and, in this case, the educated your urbanites that you’ll most likely be working with.  I highly suggest that you read this, if for no other reason than to understand the back ground of those whom your working with.

I’ve detailed the background of bosses:

Factory owner and millionaire, 35 years old, tells me that the road out in front of his factory he built with his own hands when he was in high-school. The local govt required all households to provide unpaid labor for specific lengths of the new road. His father was a teacher and away at school and his mother was over 40 and the only one home. So he had to miss much of one year of high school to fill the State-mandated labor quota. These are the type of people that you’re dealing with in China—you need to know that they can wait you out. They are not intimidated by your pressure. They know they can dump your product in the local markets if you back out. You need to understand that you’re probably not nearly as important to these many factories as you think you are.

and employees:

Nobody in any office under the age of 25 has ever had a job before the job they’ve got now.  Chances are, Chinese people under 35 have only ever worked in one industry in one city since college.  They have never had part time or after school jobs or had to put themselves through college.  They never rebuilt their first car (or any car) when they were 15.  The can’t change a tire, the oil, wiper blades or a taillight.  At home, they don’t know how to change the lights, build Ikea-type furniture or wire a stereo/TV or fix anything when it breaks.  Why?

The One Child Policy and Low Cost Labor.

and even commented on students a few times too.

When I was teaching at a university in Chongqing in ’95 I had a student say something to me that I will never forget, “at least, well, I haven’t forgotten it yet.” She told me that when she was young she had the bad habit of telling the truth.  After getting both herself and her family in trouble a number of times her father sternly taught her this lesson, “Never tell the truth to anyone but your parents.”

This was one of my first major lessons about how different China really is.  There is no “moral code” no “generally accepted morality.”  Not even an overly trite “Confucian values” system in place here, really.  I believe that one of the lasting legacies of the current government will be that they amoralized an entire country.   I’m not talking about the vilification of organized religion I’m talking about the creation of a system that punishes honesty.

But this review of the education system (and indirectly, the students themselves) tells you what’s coming next, what you’re new hires are thinking (or not thinking, as the case my be).  Basically:

1. Students are not taught to think.  In fact they are taught not to.

Western observers say that Chinese lack ‘independence and initiative’ and ‘critical thinking skills.’ Both are true, but another explanation is that Chinese don’t understand ‘process.’ In a society where students’ futures are determined by their ability to get the right answers quickly in three days of multiple-choice examinations, ‘process’ is in fact an alien concept.

2. Students are taught to memorize, finish assignments and obey.

3. From Kindergarten to College, there is very little time to play, date, think, develop personality, etc.  While many students are in involved in extracurricular activities after school these activities are classes, not (sporting) events.  I hate all the homework my 5 year-old already has each day IN PRESCHOOL!

4. Why do 20 something Chinese girls like the same things that 12 year-olds in the West like (Hello Kitty back packs in the US, Hello Kitty cars in Asia)?  Because, for the first time in their lives they can choose for themselves.

Do NOT misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that Chinese are dumb.  Quite the opposite.  They are VERY smart and they will out-test anyone else on the planet.  But they typically don’t out-perform others in random applications of applied knowledge.  Well, sometimes they do.

Westerners typically are (or at least used to be) taught to be independent individuals.  Chinese are taught to be cooperative members of a society.  The differences for how work in an MNC is done, how instructions are understood, how leadership is perceived and how following is affected couldn’t be more disparate either.

I’ve mentioned before the record setting 13-minute silence that my friend once sat through in a meeting with the “best and the brightest from China’s universities” in the boardroom of a VERY large MNC here in China.  He had asked for the 10+ MBA graduates to “brainstorm ideas” for a new program to improve their logistics in southern China.  He asked the question knowing that it would be hard to get them to make suggestions and open up, but then he timed the pause and waited… and waited.  Have you ever been anywhere were 13 MBA’s didn’t talk for 13 minutes?!

In my own company there are two important points in relationships that we recognize and sigh in relief when we pass.  The first is with employees and usually takes about 6-8 months to achieve.  This point is the: I’m going to make a suggestion, contradict my boss, or make a comment that obviously and openly shows I disagree.  I always smile and point it out “Hey, Vicky is finally comfortable enough to disagree with me,” and she’ll turn away, blush and giggle uncomfortably (just like I expect a 12-14 year old back home to do).  But the point is made—she knows that it’s both ok and expected for her to disagree.  It doesn’t change who makes the decisions, but it’s an important point in their employment with us—they are now really valuable to me:  I know they will question me if I do something they don’t think is the best option—and I need that back up to confirm where were going in the often confusing for westerners Chinese environment.

Relationship point number 2, with factories.  It usually takes about 3 orders for factories to come to us and admit: “We didn’t think that you were serious when you told us that you wanted us to call you when there were problems so you could help out.  But now we see that you really do want to help us get it done right.”  At this point I can expect that they’ll call me or a project manager at all hours of the day or night (and they usually do it a couple of times at like 4AM just to see if we’re really serious).  This is a great place to be—trusted.

In both situations there is a process of overcoming cultural misunderstandings that were taught for decades—one, the respect for title over correcting mistakes in public, and in the other, admitting to mistakes early on to achieve better results later.  Neither these two new skills nor the ability to adapt to a fluid situation is natural to Chinese employees but both can be learned (or the inabilities can be UNlearned).   We’ve had employees and factories both tell us that they are uncomfortable with these things, but they understand that that’s how it’s done and they make adjustments (amazing what people will do when there is incentive, aka money, on the line).

Here are the latest posts on education from China Power Blog:

Education in China

The thinking Process

Head Teachers

Education Games

4 Responses to “Chinese “education””

  1. Hi David,
    I really enjoy reading your articles, for which I thank you. I’m sad to say I agree 100% with what you say about the Chinese education system. My experiences as a boss, teacher and parent in China are pretty similar.
    It took many months to teach my employees that it is okay to interrupt me, ask questions and tell me when I’m wrong, after which productivity and quality goes up dramatically.
    Teaching college was a mostly ‘disappointing’ experience, with half of the students sleeping, another 35% playing with their phones, and 15% paying attention, of whom half ‘get it’, ask questions and participate. Come exam time, 92% of the work is a verbatim copy of the answers of the 8% who really studied, including copied mistakes and smudges. Several kids sent email admitting they paid no attention in class and copied all the answers, but would I please give them good marks for their exam anyway, because they really wanted a good score….
    When I first enrolled my kid in a Chinese school, I was presented not with a curriculum, but with a lunch menu. Progress reports prominently featured my kids’ eating habits, how many bowls of rice she ate, etc. So, now she’s at an international school, where the emphasis is on learning, playing, developing, but she has to bring her own packed lunch.
    Nevertheless, I would not want to live anywhere else but here in China (Suzhou), if only because there is still so much to achieve…

  2. Great post, although I do think that most of this has been observed and covered in other places ten years ago. The difference between now and 10 years ago is that it is mostly worse now. The depressing thing is that most Chinese people understand how bad their education system is , and they just say “mei banfa”. Or if they have money, they immigrate to Canada.

    I would like to add that good hiring procedures which include psychometric and critical thinking tests as well as behavioral interviews and assessment tests (like role-plays, case studies, in-box/outbox tests) can greatly increase the chances that your new employee will be someone who has good thinking skills and a proactive attitude.

  3. Having recently finished a MBA semester at BeiDa i must say that I completely agree. It was alot harder than finishing our reports to actually get the Chinese students involved in our projects.Often they would not have time for meetings because they had to play computer games. Or expected to be excempted for duties because the foreigners had better english so we could maybe get a better grade. They offered to provide “some idea” and the rest would be done by the visiting students. I have never experienced such a lack of pride or interest in the project being done. It almost seemed like they completely didnt care about neither result nor the opinion about theur efforts from the group mates perspective. With a grading system that leaves everyone with a nice pass and decent point square no matter what this makes sense. I was happy to realize though that there will still be alot of work to be done here by expats in many years to come!

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by andreasmoeller. andreasmoeller said: Alot of good points made here by David Dayton in the China Education – Culture – Business divide. […]