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Staring at the Walls

Selina Li, a product of the Chinese high school system, and Michael Martin, who currently attends a Southern California high school, compare the educational systems of their respective countries.

Walking into a Chinese high school classroom, one first stares at the walls.

“Tuan jie qing fen- Unite, be diligent. Shang jin- Make progress."

These are the slogans one finds scrawled across the walls of a Chinese classroom. A record is posted on a wall listing the names of the most excellent students of the class, not only in terms of academics, but also in sports and other fields. One wall is designated for the exhibition of outstanding student work: student drawings, written compositions, and news to interest the students in public affairs. There is order and structure, everything is uniform. The chairs are organized into straight rows. The students are responsible for classroom cleanliness, not teachers or custodians.

Walking into an American high school classroom, one first stares at the walls. They are bright and colorful- awakening. Newspaper clippings are sometimes posted, but are secondary to student art and written compositions, which often lines each wall. Most American teachers don’t list the names of the best students in the class for fear of stifling a struggling student’s potential. Seating arrangement shows that order is not of the utmost importance. The chairs are sometimes arranged in a half-circle around the teacher’s desk or whichever set-up the teacher deems most conducive to interaction and learning. Custodians, rather than students, are usually responsible for tidying the room.

The differences between Chinese and American classrooms lie not only in the walls, however, but also in teaching methods. While the defining principles and educational methods of a Chinese educational setting are, generally, memorization, respect, structure, and the student body, American educators believe individualism and creativity are paramount.

Chinese and American educational methods often diverge with regard to structure and respect in teacher-student relationships. According to traditional Chinese culture, students are to respect their teachers and appreciate their lessons. Such respect, however creates some distance between students and teachers. Chinese students are often reluctant to ask questions during class, though they may answer their teachers’ questions when called on. Though students are passive during class, they like to conduct out-of-class discussions among themselves regarding their teachers’ questions. In contrast to the typical Chinese student-teacher relationship, the American classroom often encourages student to question their teachers. While the Chinese teacher calls on a student for answers, the American teacher prefers volunteered answers from their pupils. The American classroom often involves an ongoing dialogue, in which students are active participants. The American student, in some circumstances, befriends teachers, arguably because of the absence of a Chinese-style respectful divide. While American students are active in the classroom, they are less likely to participate in out-of-class discussions regarding curricular material.

The Chinese and American educational systems also differ in their views toward the use of memorization.. Chinese social studies classes focus on the memorization of texts and events, whereas American social studies class typically emphasize the cause and effect of historical and political events. For example, an American World History class would focus, for the most part, on the importance of the cultivation of Vietnamese fast growing rice in southern China. A Chinese social studies class would more likely focus on the event’s date and context on the spectrum of chronological history.

The two systems also differ with regard to competition among students. A Chinese student’s rank determines his or her acceptance to high school. While many American educators claim that competition inhibits the learning process, many Chinese educators believe competition encourages students to succeed.

Examinations differ in frequency in China and America. American teachers administer tests on a regular basis throughout the term. In China, the final examination determines a student’s grade. One might argue that China, in placing so much importance upon the final examination, is more concerned with a student’s knowledge upon the completion of the course. In America, where tests are, for the most part, administered several times throughout the year for grade points, the evaluation of the student’s educational process seems more important.

The Chinese and American education systems differ in terms of student-teacher relationships, memorization, competition, and examination. Students with different perspectives and learning methods emerge from the two systems. For example, while the Chinese student looks at the world in terms of dates and corresponding occurrences, the American student looks at the sociological aspect of those occurrences. It is in these fundamental educational differences that the gap between China and America widens- not only in the classroom.


The views expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the UCLA Asia Institute.

Asia Institute