Ran is forty-nine and a member of the Tujia ethnic minority, who live in the Wuling Mountains, east of Sichuan. When I asked about education, he pointed to two big wooden chests in the corner. And, of course, the Communist era. The effect is moral decay. Thus our brains become as empty as the underpants of a eunuch. Although all Chinese students learn the same national curriculum, schools vary greatly. In some poor rural areas, children have to take a stool to school each day, because there is nothing to sit on; in wealthier areas, computers and well-equipped science labs are the norm.
The better schools require students to pass entrance tests, and bribery is common. Recently, an elementary-school principal went on trial for accepting more than twenty thousand dollars to admit children to his school. The pressure to gain admission is immense. Despite a university building boom over the past fifteen years, good schools are very oversubscribed.
University entrance depends on a notorious exam called the gaokao.
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Students spend all of twelfth grade prepping for it, and many of them also go to private cram schools at night and on weekends. Stories abound of extreme methods taken to insure success: pupils have been hooked up to oxygen tanks so that they can study harder, and girls have been given oral contraceptives, lest their menstrual cycles compromise performance.
Government officials have started to recognize the intense pressure on students. Last year, the Ministry of Education banned written homework during vacations for first and second graders. Increasingly, China fears that such methods do not produce the kind of creativity and independent thinking that can make it competitive with the West. Every morning at half past eight, the third-grade students at the Chengdu school line up to shake hands with their teacher, Shi Beilei.
Shi talked to each child for a few seconds, looking them warmly but firmly in the eye and encouraging them to speak up or to pay attention to a subject that she knows will be difficult. The walls of the classroom were painted a yellow-green, an effect that gave the place a light, fuzzy feel. In the Waldorf system, colors, textures, and materials in the classrooms are carefully chosen in order to avoid shocking children with an angular, overly intellectualized environment.
As in all Waldorf classrooms, there were no computers, overhead projectors, or retractable screens. Instead, there was a large blackboard with two side panels hinged like a triptych. Class started with the desks pushed against the walls. The children formed a circle and began clapping rhythmically. The fun segued into a math exercise to teach multiplication tables.
Shi called out problems on the first three claps, and the students answered on the fourth. Gradually, Shi picked up the pace, making the students think faster. Some were caught out, but none seemed embarrassed. Next to the drawing, Shi had written a story in verse to help the students learn the ten heavenly stems and the twelve earthly branches, part of the traditional Chinese ordinal system used to name the days of the week and years of the zodiac. Shi swiftly organized the pupils into two groups to perform a skit about the Pangu story.
Later, she had them pull the desks away from the wall, and they copied the story into their workbooks, using colored crayons to decorate the margins. The children had a twenty-minute break in the middle of the homeroom session, and ate snacks, having first recited a chant of thanks to the sky and the earth and the farmers.
Two forty-five-minute periods followed, one for English and one for handwork, which for the third grade meant knitting. Now thirty-five, she had previously worked in nongovernmental organizations that sought to alleviate poverty and improve the environment. Shaping two dozen youngsters seemed more manageable. Not all the classes are as carefully run, however.
A fourth-grade class I visited in June lurched from crisis to crisis. The original teacher was away on maternity leave, and her replacement was inexperienced. Usually, Waldorf teachers accompany their pupils from one grade to the next, a practice that creates a tight bond but can make it hard for a newcomer to take over a class. Many of the children arrived late.
They ignored the replacement teacher, and some of them even slept. David Wells, a Chicagoan who teaches English at the school, said that parents and staff are so hesitant about setting rules that anarchy sometimes reigns.
Educating Young Giants: What Kids Learn (And Don't Learn) in China and America by Nancy Pine
When I came in and said we needed discipline, some teachers thought I meant Chinese-style punishment and rewards. I met one couple who had withdrawn their daughter from the school. They were attracted to Waldorf because of its strong emphasis on the arts. But, the more they saw of the school, the more they came to feel that the Waldorf Education was predicated on certain ingrained cultural values that China lacked. The husband said that it was admirable that Waldorf granted children a lot of freedom, but that basic values, such as common courtesy and viewing others as equals, had to be instilled first.
Political upheavals like the Cultural Revolution had contributed, too, by eliminating traditional forms of respect. There are no limits, so they do what they want. Cut off from the rest of China by mountains, Chengdu has a reputation as easygoing but resistant to a central authority. Perhaps because of its isolation it was often a stronghold in wartime, and it has been the scene of several uprisings. Twice the entire population was massacred, and, after a rebellion in the seventeenth century, the city became so depopulated that the government resettled it with people from other provinces.
The city is famous for its teahouses, which are to be found on nearly every corner of the historic center. Locals say that this unique urban atmosphere fosters open discussion of public events and hinders acceptance of propaganda. This claim is hard to prove, but the city is home to the highest concentration of dissidents after Beijing, and it has a vibrant gay scene, something that is still a rarity elsewhere. After being in the city awhile, I learned to spot Waldorf parents. The men tended to wear baggy trousers and T-shirts.
The women dressed in flowing skirts. They made sure to buy naturally dyed crayons, and wondered whether it was important for them to visit the original Waldorf School, in Stuttgart, on their European vacations. The fact that these parents had the means to vacation in Europe prompted me to ask what they did for a living. Replies were vague.
Tuition at the school is three thousand dollars a year, which is nearly as much as the annual wage of an average Chengdu resident. But not all the parents are rich. Some become Waldorf teachers so that their children can attend at half the usual cost.
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I met one parent, Ju Zhen, in the yard of a farmhouse shared by several Waldorf families. We stood under a canopy of wintersweets, blooming yellow in the clear autumn air, and watched her seven-year-old daughter nail two pieces of camphor wood together: a small stool was taking shape. Ju came to the school last summer. For eight years before that, she was an award-winning physics teacher in Nanjing. At thirty-seven, she had just about everything the state system could offer: a good salary, a car, an apartment.
But she worried about her daughter. Her daughter, by the age of five, was already at elementary prep school, learning languages and math. Ju knew that the girl would soon be faced with endless tests and homework. So she quit her job and moved a thousand miles west, to Chengdu. Her daughter is in first grade at Chengdu Waldorf School, and Ju has been hired to help devise a high-school curriculum for the school this autumn, when ninth grade is added. Her daughter now has less homework and is learning to work with her hands.
Ju sold her car, became a vegetarian, and started to dress in cotton skirts. I had a fast-food life. The farm where I met Ju is in a former agricultural community of concrete-and-stucco bungalows set amid hedges, trees, and small fields. About forty families had moved there. In keeping with Waldorf tenets, most kept their children away from televisions and other electronics, and encouraged them to play outdoors.
Waldorf also suggests that families eat dinner together at home, whereas upwardly mobile parents tend to leave their children with a grandparent or a housekeeper, and spend evenings in restaurants building up guanxi —the complex web of relationships that are crucial to getting ahead. Children ran around us and out through a bamboo gate.
Everyone was headed to a small tract of land that half a dozen families had rented from local farmers.
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We passed by a few of the locals, who stared at us. On the way to the field, I talked to one of the parents, Michael He. A software designer, he is tall and broad-shouldered, with a big, square face. He is more concerned with giving his daughter a less rigid education and in exploring a new life style. We arrived at the land that the families had rented. The men quickly subdivided the tract into individual plots. A few days later, I bumped into her at the school.
Nancy Pine reveals how these two countries need to extract themselves from outmoded practice and learn from each other's strengths. Mary's College, USA. She is an internationally known educator with 20 years of research and consulting experience in China. Her focus has been on how children and young adults learn in the United States and in China. She has taught in both China and the United States and has won numerous awards, including a City of Los Angeles award for her cross-cultural efforts.
Pine offers a well-documented, thorough, unbiased, and up-to-date report. Challenging current educational reforms to be more responsive to rapid changes around us, she provides insightful observations that should lead the way. Such reforms are indeed needed to provide the next generation with tools to secure our collective future. Huang, California Institute of Technology.
Now, fortunately, we have such a book, written by someone with firsthand experience in both cultures and an extensive, hands-on familiarity with classroom life. This book is exceptionally timely and badly needed! Educating Young Giants will prove required reading for anyone with an interest in parenting, education, and the intertwined fates of America and China. Two great nations, China and the United States, that come from radically different educational traditions, are both racing to prepare their young people for productive life in the twenty-first century.
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Pine shows that in some ways they have misunderstood each other, and she calls upon each to take a second look at what can be learned from the other and to pool their ideas for more creative and effective ways of teaching. Throughout the book, she uses real-life stories about teachers and children from her own personal experiences in the schools of both countries, so that what might otherwise be a dry scholarly analysis is consistently alive and engaging.