Lighting the fire of learning for teenagers

Updated: 2012-03-01 08:04

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

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The author of the book I Don't Forgive the Education I Receive (wo bu yuanliang) compares the country's education system to an assembly line for the manufacturing of talent. That the author is still a third-year university student makes the book special.

Lighting the fire of learning for teenagers

He writes that his life on the university campus is even more monotonous than his senior high school days. When he was a freshman, he was playing truant one day when it dawned on him that he had done nothing in the past 20 years and that it was time he did something meaningful. The result was a book about the education he has received, which he says strangles imagination and makes it impossible for anyone to have their own ideas.

"You can't be yourself," he says.

The scholar Yi Zhongtian says in his preface to the book, "students are only the screws or gears produced for different purposes".

Chinese schools do not encourage students to express their own ideas about what they are being taught, instead students are encouraged to accept whatever the teachers tell them.

It is not hard to find examples of schools that highlight some of the problems plaguing our education system. The senior high school in the city of Pingdingshan, Central China's Henan province, asks students to sign a contract, promising that they will not talk back to teachers, gossip in the classroom or date in school. The contract stipulates that students will be given a warning or be dismissed if they violate the rules, but they will get awards if they perform well in their studies.

The goal of the current education system is to enable students to obtain high exam scores, which in turn are the benchmark of success. Their need to enter a prestigious university to ensure future success is used to pressure them into accepting what they are taught.

In truth, this method of teaching in middle and senior high schools does tend to lay very solid foundation for students' learning. A test of international students by the Program for International Student Assessment in July 2010, in which Shanghai students outscored their counterparts in dozens of other countries, testifies to the solid academic foundation of Chinese primary and middle schools.

But what we should not forget is the fact that this foundation comes at the cost of students' imagination and their ability to think for themselves.

It is the lack of a long-term view on the part of parents and schools, I believe, that is the biggest problem for Chinese education. The majority of parents fail to look beyond the score sheets of their kids' examination papers and consider high scores as the only benchmark of their kids' success and the only way to secure a successful career in the future.

School and curriculum designers, meanwhile, emphasize ways that push students to absorb as much knowledge as they can, as the more students a school sends to the prestigious universities, the better reputation it will enjoy and thus the more money it will make.

And since the higher the proportion of their students that enter prestigious senior high schools or universities, the higher the bonuses teachers get, most teachers try their best to push their students to regurgitate the knowledge they are taught in as many exercises as possible so they can familiarize themselves with the skill of sitting exams.

Meanwhile, parents push their kids to do well in exams, as the better the university they attend, the better their chances of landing a good job.

All are too shortsighted and show little concern for whether the students are happy, and whether students' talent is being nurtured so they can contribute to the creation of a better society.

Confucius said that those who think but do not learn are in danger, but those who learn but do not think are lost.

While placing enough emphasis on basic knowledge, it is necessary for Chinese schools to create ways of teaching that inspire students' imagination and creativity, and stimulate their desire to learn. Only in this way will China's education system be able to cultivate outstanding scientists and scholars.

Cynical the book may be, it should be compulsory reading for all those involved with the education of our children.

For as the Irish poet William Butler Yeats said: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.

(China Daily 03/01/2012 page8)