Monday, December 19, 2005

Exchange Student from China

Some time ago, I interviewed Elena from China regarding education in her country. The interview comprised part of a class assignment at Whitworth College, including the influence of Confucius on Chinese education. I promised to include the interview on my blog. Here it is:

Elena is a foreign exchange student and currently resides with an American family in Spokane Valley, Washington (my brother-in-law). She comes to us from China, where she attended one of the top schools in the nation. If her transcript provides an indicator of the quality of education in her home school, then both she and her school deserve highest marks. As I examined her school report, I saw she earned an “A+” in literally every subject, and throughout every single term. If she was a student in the United States, she would carry a perfect 4.0 grade point average for her entire high school career.

Elena speaks very good English and was extremely cordial throughout the entire interview. It was a genuine pleasure to visit with her.

We talked for more than an hour about the educational system in China, but I was most impressed with the academic rigor required of all students. She reports that all eighth grade students are required to take a kind of placement exam in order to enter high school. Students must obtain the highest possible score in the following subject areas: Math (120 points), Chinese (120 points), English (120 points), Physics (100 points), Chemistry (80 points), and Physical Education (30 points). Students receive a school assignment based on these test scores; higher scores merit a more prestigious and rigorous academic placement.

Obviously, she had to score well in order to attend her school, but I asked her about students who do not score well. She said those who obtain lower test scores can attend less prestigious schools, but even then, students must obtain a certain baseline score. If a student misses the baseline, he or she may retest the following year. Repeated failures may indicate a different life track, perhaps toward menial tasks or labor intensive work.

Though she did not address Confucius directly, I saw evidence of his philosophy affecting the school system in China. As we know, Confucius tried to create a better society through the conscientious application of wisdom, values, and tradition. He essentially provided a universal code of ethics designed to address proper conduct for each member of society and every social role. I saw this philosophy reinforced through Elena's description of school. For example, she spoke about students assuming a variety of formal roles in the classroom to promote proper behavior, such as classroom monitor, study manager, homework manager, etc. Each student in his or her respective role assigns a score to each fellow student based on a pre-determined set of criteria, and makes recommendations for improvement. Classroom monitors even make recommendations regarding student discipline. In this way, students work collaboratively to monitor their own behavior, usually before it ever becomes a serious problem. I was amazed with the power of values and gentle social pressure to shape human behavior in such a large population.

Without doubt, I would have to say the Communist Revolution under Chairman Mao Zedong had the greatest impact on modern education in China. Under this system, education serves the dual purpose of educating the citizenry and reinforcing state values. This was evident during our interview. At one point I asked her about the role of government in schools and she simply stated, “The government is good. They know what is best for us to learn at school.” She later expressed dismay when she received an assignment in her American school to criticize President Bush. “We don’t criticize our leaders,” she said.

She was gracious and kind throughout the interview. I was very impressed with her as a human being and as a representative of her homeland.

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