Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

A sausage machine called education

The red ball bounces across the classroom while about fifty pairs of kiddies’ eyes stare enthralled, counting the number of bounces, seven, eight, nine… The ball starts to roll and team three in the class roars out, “ELEVEN!” They had guessed eleven bounces and therefore their team gets points. I am teaching them numbers, and “counting” questions, like “How many bounces?”. Kids vie for a chance to ask the different teams how many bounces, to scribble down the team’s guess, and most importantly, to throw that ball as hard as possible against wall or floor to see how many bounces they can get out of that battered beach ball …

Here at grass roots level, the education system in China has some fascinating and disturbing aspects. I have never come across such robot-like learning in my life. In the West we focus on teaching children to think for themselves. Chinese teachers have actually told me the teachers must do the thinking for our children. So if a child does not know the answer, it is literally given to them; they are not required to work it out – at least this is what I have seen time and time again when teaching students in this country from primary school level to university level for six years. I have had teaching assistants trying to whisper covertly the correct answer into a small child’s ear when they think I am not noticing. This clearly teaches the child 1) cheating is okay* and 2) they don’t have to think for themselves; the laoshi, teacher, will do it for them. This has resulted in some of the most robotic behaviour Marion and I have ever seen. The children are so used to merely repeating, that if I say in Chinese, “shenme yisi?” (“What does this mean?”) they simply thunder back to me, “shenme yisi?” I then have to explain to the kids that I am asking them to answer the question. If I scratch my nose, most of them scratch their noses. If I roll up my sleeves, most of them roll up their sleeves.

You may find the above Pavlov dogs’ examples hard to believe, but they are true. And, of course, it is the entailment of such zombie-like behavior for the future workforce of China which pertains here. It is far easier to understand how the Chinese spirit was utterly crushed during times like the Cultural Revolution and, as it is expressed in nightmarish autobiographies like Wild Swans and War Trash, when working with their youngsters on the ground. The People with a capital P have for centuries been taught not to question, not to think, to accept stoically whatever is thrown at them. Of course there are exceptions that prove the rule.

“How many bananas are there in the picture?” I ask the class. The team who gets the correct answer gets points. The picture is from their textbook which they are not allowed to look at, which is chock-a-block with kids playing sports and eating fruit and so forth. I then get kids to come up and ask the class questions. How many pairs of shoes in the picture? How many watches? The best is when the children can look at the picture in their books and I cover mine and they ask me questions, trying to catch me out, which they soon learn to do. How many eyes, teacher? How many white socks? If I guess wrong their team gets a point, which elicits a standing ovation from that team, or if I get it right, I dramatically give myself a huge point with coloured chalk amid groans of dismay. They don’t even realise they are learning English. I emulate as best I can the way we all absorbed so much of our own mother tongues before we ever went to “big school” and opened a textbook.

“You see,” I try to explain to one Chinese English teacher (one example of many explanations), “you or I never learned the basics of our mother tongues through studying grammar and poring over dictionaries. Words have an emotional content. We learned our languages through our senses, touch, smell, feel …” For example, when a Chinese child first said to me “wo BU xi huan”, I could tell by the emotional content that she was saying, “I DON’T like …” It is also so much easier to remember words and phrases through their emotional strength (which is a reason why small children repeat swearwords in class to shocked teachers, even though the child does not know what the four-letter word means). So I mostly teach children through games.

“Think about it,” I have asked Chinese teachers, “why were you able to speak Chinese before you even went to school and opened a grammar book or dictionary?”

“Because I am Chinese,” would come the sincere answer with a large, proud smile. (Many Chinese sincerely believe that when they arrive in this world they have Mandarin printed into their brains. Many are surprised, even shocked with their mouths open, when I tell them I know Chinese people, born and bred South Africans, who cannot speak a word of Mandarin, but are mother-tongue speakers of English.)

“No, no,” I reply to her. “I know of foreigners in Shanghai who have sent their little three- and four-year-olds to a Chinese crèche. After a few months they are able to speak, almost as well as their classmates, Mandarin and Shanghaiese as well as their mother tongue even though they have never academically learned any of those languages …” I can see the Chinese English teacher closing up. She cannot think outside of her small, pedagogical box: drilling the kids with English grammar, phonetics and endless repetition which the children hate. Of course there is an important place for grammar. But even many university students in China I have taught may know a lot of grammar, but they are unable to hold a conversation in English.

I don’t believe in marking papers and just giving them back. I call them up in pairs or threesomes (because of the size of the classes I don’t have time to call them up one by one), underline a solecism in one of their essays and ask them to tell me what is wrong. Thus they learn to think, to work out for themselves what they are doing wrong, not just wait to get spoon-fed, which is too often the case. Self-correction is as a powerful technique that requires you to think independently (anathema to Chinese authorities), to think in the target language you wish to acquire. Sadly, little of this is applied in the Chinese classroom. The students and their education remind me of this dog in a cage I once saw in a “portable pet shop”.

On the whole, I get on spectacularly with Chinese colleagues in schools or universities I am placed in. But the utter lack of creativity I often encounter, even among teachers, is staggering. Here in Suzhou the education department encourages us foreign teachers to “extend” on the syllabus taught by Chinese teachers, introduce new vocabulary items and so forth. In one school, Chinese teachers would sit in on my lessons to help if needed, as did the other Chinese teachers for other classes. Habitually they would say, if I was revising material, “But the children have already learned this.” Then I would introduce new items. My colleagues would then exclaim, “But the children haven’t learned this yet.” This criticism was leveled at me ad nauseum for months. “They have already learned this.” “They haven’t learned this yet.” I was mindlessly criticised for what sums up education: revision and introducing new material. An unexamined assumption was being made that the children were incapable of learning what I was introducing to them. The hapless dog in the small cage comes to mind again.

How does this kind of education help shape the future of the Chinese economy? Nothing like having pre-programmed androids filling the endless factory jobs here, exploited for minimum wages, cyborgs who rarely question anything. In discussion groups on fairness in business practice I have had Chinese university students even defending well-known food outlet chains we all know who only pay the equivalent of about five to ten RMB an hour (about the same in rands). Talk about fat profit margins for shareholders. Communism in China? My hairy arse.

When thrown into an entirely different culture, as I have been, it is so easy to spot many flaws, the erroneous methods in say, education, because the new culture is such an eye-opening shock. But then I am also used to my own Western, particularly South African culture. Which, because it was never a cultural shock, I did not question much even though I thought I had. The chilling thought is: is Western education really any different to mainland Chinese? Are Western (or to narrow it down, South African) youngsters truly taught to think independently**, outside the countless, unexamined micro-programs of hidebound ideology and the social conditioning which largely determine their status for life?

*Whilst living in New Zealand there was an outcry from institutions such as Massey University over Chinese students miserably failing coursework in English because their grasp of English was far below the required standard. This is because foreign languages schools in Auckland and elsewhere were accepting bribes to produce the certification needed to be granted entry into tertiary institutions.

**For example, it is a trend to teach school-goers entrepreneurial skills. Unfortunately this becomes yet another academic subject – how can teachers who are not entrepreneurs themselves teach entrepreneurial skills?

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