If you happen to get lost walking the streets of a Chinese city and you are worried about your Asian language skills, don’t be too concerned. Just ask a high school student for directions. You will most likely get a response in English and you’ll be safely on your way. But, if you really want to be impressed, ask a middle school student for the directions. You will most likely get a response in English and also enjoy a conversation about Chinese culture, American food and where to find the best shops in town. Young students in China are determined to learn and speak English and they enjoy meeting English-speaking visitors.
Earlier this month I traveled to China as a member of a small delegation of educators. Our purpose was to understand and experience the Chinese education system and culture. During our journey, we toured some of the leading experimental schools as well as highly regarded language schools. I had the opportunity to speak with educational leaders, teach classes, and meet students, parents and teachers from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenzhen. Through conversations and observations I learned about the Chinese education system and the formidable challenges presented to a fast-developing nation that values its population of 1.4 billion citizens – which amounts to 20% of the World’s population.
The top students in China are bright, curious, inquisitive, ambitious and keenly focused on academic excellence in high school and beyond. They study in a highly competitive environment. Throughout the entire visit, I was struck by their stalwart academic commitment. And it appears to me, that the fundamental reason students attend school in China is to master the core curriculum. The extra-long school days and the six-day school week are normal and required for success. A strong concentration on reading, math and science is the underpinning of the educational plan and essential for success when taking competitive (and often destiny controlling) national tests. It also seems to me that student success in China is a product of a culture that prioritizes pure academic achievement over all other pursuits. This success is partially due to the fact that students are engaged in the successful learning of the curriculum enhanced by carefully measured opportunities in the arts and athletics.
When not attending a school visit or educational fair, immersion in China’s deep and unique history and ancient rituals claimed top priority. I stood in Tiananmen Square, walked The Forbidden City, gazed at the 600 year old Temple of the Heavens – built without 1 nail, climbed the steps of The Great Wall, rode a cable car to the top of Qingcheng Mountain, photographed the Pandas, marveled at the 2000 year old Dujiang Yan Irrigation System, admired Olympic Stadium, ferried the West Lake, sampled traditional Chinese foods, drank tea, and shopped at Zhenzhu Pearl Market. The trip was truly awe-inspiring.
During the flights back and still today, I continue to review the images and emotions from this trip. I think about my discussions of Asian art, music, sculpture, wood-carving, calligraphy, symbolism, dance, and the engineering behind massive irrigation systems, Panda bears, family values and, of course, they many possible opportunities for CHC students and teachers. I came home with a lasting appreciation for the Chinese people, the beauty and culture of their country and their unwavering commitment to the education of their children and their contributions to the enrichment of our world.