How Do Chinese and American Educational Systems Compare

It is not an uncommon belief that Chinese students are smarter than their American counterparts.  Education experts, psychologists, and scientists have hypothesized and studied why Chinese students often outperform American students.  Part of the answer lies in the foundational beliefs about the purpose of education.

Aim of Education

In China, learning aims to accumulate knowledge.  Chinese students are taught from the age of 2-3 years that learning is critical to success, and that discipline and strictness are required in that pursuit.  There is a high focus on memorization and a fundamental understanding of calculations—Chinese students are not even allowed to use calculators.

American education, on the other hand, focuses more on creativity and how the student will use the knowledge in society.  Homework is not just memorizing facts and demonstrating skills, but applying originality to the work in the form of critiquing thoughts and challenging the status quo.

Structure of Education

Chinese students stay with the same two or three teachers all the way through elementary school and into primary school, and the teachers are responsible for groups of 40 or more students.  The Chinese teacher thinks, “How can I help this group the most?”  Homework is assigned every day, with assignments over all of the holidays and breaks, and there is strong pressure to perform well on end of year exams.

In contrast, American teachers are encouraged to focus on individual students, creating plans like Individual Education Plans to structure a subject to a specific student’s learning needs.  The American teacher thinks, “How can I help this student the most?”  Many schools have done away with homework altogether, whether because they think students don’t need the extra practice or because students don’t bother to do it.  End of year exams are often viewed as just another test to pass. 

Societal Expectations

In Chinese society, there is a high value on learning and education for future success.  Beginning in preschool, Chinese parents communicate early that their children are expected to succeed in school, which has a very competitive environment.  Students do not typically have time for extra-curricular activities as the school day runs long and then they must complete homework. 

American parents tend to view education and learning as just another part of their children’s lives.  A majority of American children play sports, learn an instrument and socialize with friends from a young age.  School typically does not begin for the American child until five years, which is usually the first formal school experience.  And the American student does not have to strive in a competitive academic environment until late high school and into college as the American educational system is focused on any achievement, not just high grades. 

There are other significant reasons why Chinese students take education more seriously than American students, but the shift in academic focus and thinking seems unlikely for American educators.  However, American students would be wise to take notice of what Chinese students model and incorporate some of those strategies into their own learning. 

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