Classroom Culture Shock: American Teenagers and the Chinese Education System

by Kelsey Larson

I began my language education as a German student in the classroom of Frau Werner, a space plastered with colorful posters and filled with the sounds of skits, songs, and really cheesy videos. Class was fun, it was hands-on, it was noisy. When I signed up to study Chinese in China for six weeks, I based my few, fuzzy predictions of the class off of my time writing storybooks in German.

I was wrong. I was so, so, wrong.

Our mild-mannered teacher, walking into class on the first day, suddenly transformed: her spine snapped rigid, her teeth grew into daggers, and her eyes began roving the class for the weak or chatting. “Listen!” she ordered us. “Listen and read!” And with that, characters began appearing on the board in a dizzying succession, long periods of lecturing periodically interrupted by questions zooming in on the unprepared in a manner that would have made a certain potions professor proud. “Now tell me, what would you get if you added two strokes to the top of tian? You can’t say? Pity. It seems a government scholarship isn’t everything, now is it, Ms. Larson?”

As bizzarre as it seemed to us, our teacher’s style is hardly out of the ordinary here in China: teachers simply impart information, with little or no repetition. The student’s role is to listen attentively, take detailed notes, and then actually study and learn the material during study halls or outside of school. Activities are virtually unheard of (my host sister first looked puzzled then started laughing nervously when I asked her if she ever played games in class), and students only talk when called upon to answer a question.  Needless to say, it was a bit of a change from the American style my fellow students and I were used to.

Chinese students in class (Flickr Creative Commons).

These differences have deep roots in the incentives students face. For Chinese students, college entrance hinges almost entirely on a single set of tests, the high school exit exams. The tests are fiercely competitive, and poor performers lose their sole chance to go to college. For a student who fails to get into college, their years of effort dissolve into nothing more than a high school diploma, shaming themselves and their families as well as crippling their job opportunities. If US students faced the same set of incentives, they might be burning the midnight oil as well!

In fact, if the Chinese education system has one thing to teach American students, it is dedication to learning. Students throw effort into their studies, even taking classes during their already short summer break. As our teacher often reminds us, Chinese students are respectful and attentive, cramming incredible amounts of info into themselves without the sweetener of interesting activities. Even our insulated contact with the Chinese education system has taught my fellow students and I to work harder, driving us to put in the study we need to succeed.

However, the Chinese education system has a lot to learn from the US system. American activities are more than just fun and games: they allow students to learn better and also learn other essential skills.  The words I remember most clearly in Chinese or German are the ones with a story: a list of prepositions sung to the Blue Danube Waltz; my host sister calling her cousin her “wan ju”, or toy; the character that looks like an asteroid hitting a cactus.

Furthermore, this style only works for some students and some subjects. The talents of students who don’t fit well with the extensive memorization and focus on subjects like science and math fall through the cracks. As one Chinese host (who had taught herself fluent English through her intensive extracurricular study of American pop culture, particularly as pertaining to Lady Gaga) explained, the passive “take notes and memorize” style of Chinese English classes leaves many students able to write and read well, but with poor speaking skills. Even if our extracurricular games of Simon Says draw laughter from the watching Chinese, they are allowing us to use valuable learning tools that the Chinese often ignore.

Our class has become an interesting mixture of the two styles. We kick off the day with a solid hour of character dictation, a very Chinese (and very useful) activity that has rocket-launched my reading skills.  After that, we learn a new unit, have conversations, or, if our teacher is in a good mood, play whatever vocabulary games she has hunted off of the internet. American learning efficiency paired with the Chinese willingness to do whatever works best has let us get more out of the experience than if we’d taken on the task of education with one method alone. The Chinese and American education systems aren’t either-or options: the nation that wants to get ahead in today’s world can learn something from both.

 Kelsey Larson ’16 is in Silliman College.  Contact her at