The China Question

September 2011

Good Good Study Day Day Up

If you live in China you will be familiar with the sight of children in their white shirts and red neckerchiefs, wearily trudging into to school at 6.30 in the morning. It’s something that’s always puzzled me a bit. In China, children are really pushed hard by their parents. After school they do a ton of homework and often forced into extra study in some discipline — piano, a solo sport, ballet, wei qi, or English. Parents invest so much in their children and dote on them excessively. This is done in part to address their hopes and apprehensions for the future. China is an extremely competitive society and life is a rat race for most. But this hardcore approach to education can turn out to be quite counterproductive and most children hate the extra tuition.

“When a pupil co-operates willingly, he learns twice as fast and with half the fatigue.” ~ Bertrand Russell

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a busy noodle shop in the bowels of Shanghai’s Xujiahui district and all I could here behind me was this irritating mother castigating her child for getting the characters wrong in his little exercise book. The poor child sat there ashamed and perplexed. The woman’s voice rose into a disgusting crescendo of screams at which point I told her to shut up, as did the waitress. Everything about it was so wrong. I’m not sure if there is a Chinese equivalent of dyslexia, but I think that in China getting your characters wrong is called being stupid and likely to get you a clip round the ear…

Sugar mouse
Classical concepts. In China, if a teacher draws a mouse on the board, the pupils have to copy it exactly.

East Asian kids might get the world's highest scores on maths tests and problem solving but these are knowledge-based subjects, success in which is ensured by the monotonous drudgery of “stuffing the duck”. That’s not a lucrative end for the future of the economy. When the former Chinese President, Deng Xiaoping, wanted to justify his decision to switch from a communist command economy to a market system, he famously said that

It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.

If catching mice means getting rich, the central government had better make sure the cat is strong and savvy enough to compete with the other moggies on the block. The future of the developed world lies in creative tertiary industries — fashion, music, education, and entertainment, which absolutely rely on innovative design and marketing.

Disney might be throwing millions at the children’s ESL market in China (and they’ve got the money to lose) but how pedagogically innovative are their materials aside from exploiting slavish brand recognition?

The Chinese know where they need to catch up but they don’t really know about the practicals of getting there. China is just too conservative a culture and this closes people and industries off to new ideas — until they have been solidly proven, by which time it’s too late and they end up playing the dull but familiar role of imitator.

And the problem is play — or lack of it. Too many people don’t seem to grasp the concept that directionless play is not the same as being idle. Children are supposed to waste time — that’s how they learn about the world; through experience, on their own terms. Wasting time is an end in itself.

I remember watching a lecture by the psychologist Stuart Brown, in which he told a story about a group of lab rats. Half of the rats were allowed to play without interference, while the other half were kept caged up and prevented from interacting. Then a cat was introduced, at which point they all fled and hid. The difference between the two groups was that the player rats re-emerged shortly after that cat had gone, while the others stayed for a long time hidden in fear.

This is how vital and natural play is to positive behaviour and learning. If we don’t let people fool around, explore their curiosity and take risks, nothing truly new ever gets done. Wouldn’t it be sensible therefore for China to throw off the shackles of an outdated Confucianist code and embrace a modern individualist and humanistic society?