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Examining the System

A new documentary on China’s education system reveals not only where the problems lie, but also why it is difficult to address them

By NewsChina Updated Dec.1

China’s education system has been under criticism for a long time for being too exam-oriented, which piles the pressure on China’s young people, especially as they approach college age. Authorities have launched several rounds of educational reforms designed to reduce the excessive emphasis on academic achievement. But these efforts appear to have failed to alter China’s highly competitive educational culture.  

While affluent Chinese parents are sending their children abroad to escape what they consider a suffocating educational culture in China, some are now starting to try to bring educational practices from overseas back home.  

In August, a documentary series called Childhood Elsewhere caused a stir among Chinese educators and parents. The six-episode documentary was broadcast weekly on Youku, a leading Chinese video streaming platform. The documentary received an average rating of 9.2, an extraordinarily high score, from more than 6,000 reviewers on Douban, a Chinese film and TV review platform. 

Behind the documentary series is Zhou Yijun, a journalist-turned filmmaker who served as content editor and led the interviews in the documentary. Zhou was previously known as an international reporter with the Hong Kong-based Chinese language Phoenix TV. Her career includes reporting on the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts in the Middle East. But as a mother of two, Zhou has now turned her attention toward the education system.  

Six-Country Journey
For her documentary series, Zhou traveled to five countries, Finland, India, Japan, the UK and Israel, then returned to China, where she met with educators, parents and children to learn about their experiences, practices and philosophies of education. Rather than taking a holistic approach, in each country, Zhou tackles specific issues and problems which challenge China’s education system.  

Zhou’s journey starts in Japan, where the educational culture shares much similarity with China. Zhou said that with a strong collective culture and an emphasis on the importance of “not causing inconvenience to others,” Japanese students are often trained to constrain their personal emotions, a somewhat similar problem to their Chinese counterparts. Instead of focusing on the overall educational practices throughout Japan, Zhou focused on alternative practices initiated by local Japanese educators to mitigate the social pressure put on young children in the country by encouraging kids to make their own decisions, something Zhou believes could provide inspiration for Chinese educators.  

In India, a country which also shares some common challenges such as a large population and a big disparity between urban and rural populations, Zhou takes a more open perspective, addressing issues such as the role of the internet in education and poorer communities’ access to educational resources.  

But one puzzling question in particular Zhou tries to answer is why India supplies 30 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies, in contrast to the almost complete absence of China-born senior executives, although the average educational level of Indians is below that of Chinese. The answer, according to Zhou, is that Indian students are encouraged to articulate their thoughts from a very early age, while Chinese students are discouraged from making public declarations.  

In the UK, Zhou’s focus is the educational approaches adopted by elite schools. Zhou said she picked this angle because although the UK has become a popular destination for China’s middle and upper-class families to send their children, most Chinese parents still carry a clichéd stereotype of the “British gentleman” from the 1940s. In the documentary, Zhou shows the audience how sports and character building, rather than the perceived social manners and discipline, are now the focus of elite education in the UK.  

In Israel, the documentary examines the meaning of innovation and its impact in the education arena. Zhou said she tried to answer the question of why Israeli parents, just as known for their obsession with their children’s education as Chinese parents are, could build their small country into what many call a “start-up nation.”  

According to Zhou’s findings, the answer seems to lie in that Israeli educators and parents have adopted a different perception of success and failure to their Chinese counterparts. Unlike Chinese parents, who tend to impose their own definitions of success on their children, Israeli parents are more tolerant of allowing their children to formulate their own ideas.  

In Finland, whose education system is consistently ranked among the best in the world, Zhou explored an entirely different educational philosophy that focuses on equality rather than excellence, while discouraging standardized tests. Zhou concedes that Finland’s “Nordic model” of education may only be possible for countries with small populations, advanced economies and high social welfare levels, but she said it should not forestall Chinese educators from drawing inspirations from their practices. “It will not directly solve China’s problems, but it can open your eyes to alternative ideas,” Zhou said.  

In the final episode, Zhou and her team return to China, where she explores home-grown initiatives to address the problems of China’s education system with approaches based on both traditional Chinese cultures and foreign experiences.  

Social Complexity 
While Zhou’s documentary rekindled the debate and discussion surrounding China’s controversial education system, many feel the future path for China’s educational reform remains as murky as ever, given the economic and social complexity of Chinese society.  

As society has undergone rapid changes both economically and socially, educational issues have become closely intertwined with other social issues, which have made them increasingly complicated.  

For example, in the past years, in an effort to alter the focus on academic achievement of the public education system, educational authorities have required public schools to reduce the number of exams and the amount of assigned homework, especially in primary years. In the meantime, schools are encouraged to put more emphasis on extracurricular activities regarding enrollment and other school matters. 

Unfortunately, these measures not only failed to address the excessive zeal for test results, they also created new concerns over enlarging educational inequality, as the income gap has steadily enlarged along with economic growth. Critics argue that as test results become less important, more affluent families have gained a considerable upper hand over less affluent families who cannot afford expensive extracurricular activities and clubs for their children.  

The result has been pushback against the efforts to downplay the role of exams in the education system. The debate over the gaokao, China’s extremely tough and stressful national college entrance examinations, is particularly contentious. Amid calls to downgrade its importance or even scratch it entirely, many now hail the exam as the last safeguard of social mobility, arguing that it serves as one of few remaining channels for students from the bottom rungs of society to climb up the social ladder, as they can still enter a good college and possibly change their fate just by studying hard, without resorting to social connections or financial resources.  

Zhou is well aware of that. Rather than taking a simplified perspective to tell the audience which approach is right or wrong, Zhou said she tried to present how different cultural and social contexts can shape education in a particular society. In short, for the Chinese education system to transform itself, there has to be a social and cultural transformation. Unfortunately, no such transformation is on the horizon.  

Parental Anxiety
For Chinese parents, concerns over their children’s education have become a leading source of anxiety, which experts believe also play a major factor in discouraging couples from having children at all. But at the same time, while many parents are unhappy about the competitive educational culture, they are more than ready to invest in anything that could give their children a head start.  

In more recent years, many parents, especially middle and upper classes who experienced overseas education, have started to adopt alternative education philosophies, but they still have no less anxiety.  

“It’s more like a gamble, if you have not decided from the beginning that you will send your kids overseas,” said Zhou, a mother of two in Beijing, who is not related to Zhou Yijun and would like to be quoted only by her surname.  

Deciding to let her older daughter have a “happy childhood,” she sent her to an expensive international school in Beijing which follows a Western curriculum. However, when her 16-year-old daughter entered a Chinese senior high school, she was under great peer pressure to catch up with her classmates on academic tests with the gaokao just a couple of years away. 

“She once said ‘I hate my life,’ and I got worried and told her not to push herself too hard. She responded ‘I will hate my life more if I don’t.’ I was really heartbroken,” Zhou told NewsChina.  
Zhou said she came to Beijing after finishing her graduate studies in the US, and that she enjoyed her life in the city and had passed on opportunities to emigrate. But now she said she has started to seriously consider emigrating because of concerns over her daughters’ education.  
But for those who actually emigrated, many have brought their anxiety along with them, said Yang, who runs a tutoring business in Melbourne, Australia. Yang, who would also like to be quoted only by his surname, moved to Melbourne in 2015. Prior to that, he ran a successful math tutoring business in Beijing. Initially, he tried to copy his business model in Melbourne, but with only lukewarm success, attracting only a few mostly Chinese immigrant clients.  

“Australian parents love sports, and don’t care much about math,” Yang said.  But Yang soon found a goldmine in the tutoring business for the entrance exam to Victorian Selective Entry High Schools among Chinese immigrants.  

“After coming here, many Chinese immigrant parents feel completely lost in the Australian education system,” Yang said, adding that it puts much more emphasis on equality than academic excellence.  

“When they [Chinese parents] find there are still exams available to their kids to stand out academically, they are so relieved.” Yang said that some parents even send their children to his tutoring program two years ahead of the exam.  

For many experts, the source of anxiety does not stem from China’s education system alone, but from the personal experience of a whole generation of Chinese parents, who regardless of their current financial status, have almost all experienced a period of poverty, making them particularly anxious about the prospect of their children falling down the social ladder.  

“For the past few decades, China’s society has experienced phenomenal transformation in terms of economic, social and technological development, but for many Chinese parents, their mentality remains in the past,” filmmaker Zhou said.

Still from Childhood Elsewhere

Still from Childhood Elsewhere