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Torture is not Good Education: A Response to WSJ’s Why American Students Need Chinese Schools

20 September 2017 5,928 One Comment

This piece was published in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet under the title There’s a new call for Americans to embrace Chinese-style education. That’s a huge mistake. on September 20 2017.

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Why American Students Need Chinese Schools?[1]” by Lenora Chu, author of the newly released book Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve. The message is familiar, along the same line as another WSJ article titled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior several years ago.

I would have easily discarded the article for its ludicrous title if I had not read the galley of the book before. I did not see any convincing evidence in the book that supports the proposal that American students need Chinese schools. Quite on the contrary, I understood the book as further evidence for not importing Chinese schools into America.

Little Soldiers is far from a love affair with Chinese schools as the title of the WSJ article suggests. Quite on the contrary, it is a vivid portrayal of an outdated education model that does serious and significant damage.

Lenora Chu and her husband are American journalists living in Shanghai. They enrolled their son Rainey in a local Chinese school. The book is a journalistic recount of her observations of the experience and her personal interactions with the school as well as parents, teachers, students, education leaders, and scholars in China and elsewhere.

Rainey’s experience in Soong Qing Ling, easily one of the best schools Shanghai, which has perhaps the best schools in China, once again exposes the problems of Chinese education: rigid, authoritarian, and unhealthy competition. He was force-fed eggs by his teacher; he was silenced during lunch; he was rewarded for sitting still and mute; he was told to compete for number one because there was no reward for second place; he was not allowed to raise questions; he learned that the teacher and the school has unquestionable authority; and the family hired private tutors and spent breakfast time doing tests.

Using threats as a motivational tool is common in Chinese education. Chu calls the Chinese “world-class experts at fear-based motivation.” It works but can have serious consequences. Rainey became afraid. He one time asked his father if he’d be taken away by the police if he did not take nap because the teacher in school threatened that if he did not nap as required, the police would come to take him away. Chu also reports that her son became afraid of other things associated with school, being late, missing class, or disappointing the teacher.

And as a coping strategy, Rainey learned to lie, to fake. He learned to fake a cough when he wanted water in class because he discovered that was the most effective way to get to drink water without irritating the teacher.

Chu was fully aware of the problems of Chinese schooling. She does not have Stockholm syndrome. She is a caring mother, a reflective journalist, and curious observer. She of course wants the best for her child, as any mother would. The best is for her is the “exact middle” between academic rigor and play, serious academic studying and enjoying what life has to offer: sports, arts, leisure, literature, drama, and comedy.

It was apparent that the Chinese school was tilting too much toward one end. So the couple devised a counter measure to mitigate the negative effects of Chinese schooling. Unlike many Chinese parents who typically have to reinforce what the school does at home, Chu and her husband decided to provide a very different experience for their child. They allowed him to make his own decisions, filled his environment with choices, provided him with art supplies, took him to museums, played soccer and tennis with him, and involved in other activities for the sole purpose of leisure. Essentially, they created an American experience for their boy at home.

They were able to do what the majority of Chinese cannot. First, they have the resources and are familiar with American education and culture. Second, they have the luxury to leave the Chinese system at anytime, while the majority of Chinese are stuck in the system forever.

Today, Chu is the proud mother of a young boy who enjoys hard work and has an open and curious mind. In the book, Chu describes Rainey as a boy who can make others laugh, adapts well in uncomfortable situations. Plus he has leadership skills. Such is evidence that her plan worked well. She is ready to share her lessons with the world.

****

The lessons Chu distilled from Chinese schooling are not new. Many before her have shared the same message: authority and rigidity are virtuous and should be adopted by American schools.

In essence, she wants teachers as an unquestioned authority. She writes in her WSJ article[2]: “[H]aving the teacher as an unquestioned authority in the classroom gives students a leg up in subjects such as geometry and computer programming, which are more effectively taught through direct instruction (versus student-led discovery)…”

She also believes that rigidity is an educational advantage: “The reason is simple: Classroom goals are better served if everyone charges forward at the same pace. No exceptions, no diversions,” writes Chu in the WSJ article[3].

Furthermore, Chu believes the sufferings delivered by the Chinese authoritarian, high pressure, and rigid education is rigor. “China’s school system breeds a Chinese-style grit, which delivers the daily message that perseverance—not intelligence or ability—is key to success” because the Chinese believe hard work trumps innate talent when it comes to academics, according to Chu in the WSJ article[4].

In essence, Chu believes American education is not authoritarian enough, not rigid enough, and not demanding enough in comparison to education in China. She is not alone. In fact, the admiration for an authoritarian and rigid education has a long history and has fueled waves of reforms to make American education more authoritarian, more standardized, and more demanding. In the 1950s, American education was criticized for not being as tough and rigorous as that in the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, it was denounced for not being as tough and rigorous as that in Japan. In the 1990s, Singapore was the target of emulation for its rigorous education, especially in math. If anything, American education has become more authoritarian, more rigid, and more demanding with increased centralization of curriculum standardization, high stakes testing, and imposition of bureaucratic accountability measures. Chu’s point about American teachers losing authority and respect is well taken but it is the result of decades of misinformed bashing, which her WSJ article may be interpreted as such.

***

As much as I enjoyed the book and admired Lenora Chu’s courage for sending her son to a Chinese school, I don’t see an authoritarian and rigid education as meritorious. As someone who has experienced both Chinese and American education as a student and teacher and an educational researcher for nearly three decades, I have learned that such a system results in unproductive successes—outcomes that appear appealing in the short term but result in long term irreparable damages. Something I call the side effects of education, akin to the side effects of medicine. In this case, the side effects are so severe that the medicine should not be approved.

Chu’s book is filled with vivid examples of the unproductive successes of a rigid and authoritarian education: lots of seemingly desirable outcomes with severe adverse side effects.

Fear Induced Good Behaviors

Chu likes the Chinese system because it has made her son “a disciplined and polite child,” an outcome that delights every parent. However, the discipline and politeness resulted from fear—fear of being punished, being publicly humiliated, being deprived of a reward, or being taken away by the police, as Chu recounts in the book. Fear induced good behaviors are motivated by external punishment or rewards rather than intrinsically motivated self-control and discipline. Fear induced good behaviors are fake. They are lies made to evade punishment or receive award. It is called cheating.

There is mounting evidence of the negative, long-term damages of authoritative parenting, which insists on unquestioning obedience and enforces good behavior through threats, shaming, and other punishments. A recent article published in the journal Developmental Psychology summarizing findings of over 1,400 published studies found that harsh control and psychological control are the biggest predicators of worsening behavior problems over time[5]. Other damages include social emotional problems: lower social competency, high anxiety, less resourceful, less mature, and lower morality.

Rainey was lucky to have a counter measure at home. In his case, Rainey experienced authoritarian parenting in the school but has warm, caring, responsive, resourceful, and reflective parents at home. For young children, the home culture is much more important than the school, as Chu admits in her book. So in a sense Rainey was not damaged, at least not as severely as the majority of Chinese children who do not have such a wonderful counter measure at home. But I still wonder if he would have turned out to be equally disciplined and polite had attended an American school. After all, there are plenty of disciplined and polite Americans.

Force Fed Learning

Another unproductive success Chu celebrates is her son’s math and Chinese. She was thrilled that her child was able to write numbers when he was still wearing diapers at night. She was equally proud that her son memorized hundreds of Chinese characters at a very young age. Academic achievement is a very desirable outcome for many parents and schools. But how significant is the outcome for real life and what are the possible damages?

Rainey could recognize Chinese characters, but he was tired of speaking Chinese, according to the book. He did not want to invite his Chinese friends to his birthday party because he did not want to speak Chinese on his birthday. For Rainey speaking Chinese is schoolwork and on his birthday he did not want to do schoolwork.

Rote memorization is not learning. Regurgitation does not mean deep understanding. I remember my own son pointing at and sounding out signs in Chinese characters on buildings when he was one and half years old. But I knew he was not reading. They were simple behaviorist stimulus-response moments, just like a horse doing math. Remember Clever Hans, the German horse that was thought to be so clever that it could learn to do math? Well it was not. It was simply responding to cues from its trainer.

Direct instruction, as I explain with abundant evidence in the article What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects of Education[6], can indeed produce immediate gains and looks more effective in the short term than student-led discovery. But in the long term, it does not lead to the deep and meaningful understanding that really matters. Moreover, it leads to a loss of curiosity, creativity, interest in learning, and confidence in the subject. There is a consistent pattern that shows students in high scoring education systems in international tests such as the PISA and TIMMS have lower confidence, enjoy the subject less, and place less value in it[7].

Misplaced Grit

Grit is one more unproductive success that resulted from the Chinese schooling experience Chu proudly talks about. She describes her son as gritty and resilient. She attributes her son’s grit and resilience to the punishing, oppressing, threatening or otherwise demanding experiences he had “survived.” It makes me think that she is endorsing torturing as an excellent pedagogy.

Grit is certainly important and has become a popular quality parents and educators pursue today. The reasoning is straightforward: without efforts and persistence, one cannot succeed, no matter how talented he or she is. But at the same time blind persistence is simple stupidity. Sticking to something one does not like or has no talent in does not lead to success either. The power of grit in one’s success in schools and beyond is not nearly as great as has been claimed, according to recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology[8].

The belief that hard work trumps talent is unscientific at best and cruel at worst. No doubt that human beings can all learn, but to what extent and at what speed varies a great deal for different individuals. I am sure I can learn to play football, with perseverance, but I don’t think I can play for any NFL team. I can also learn to paint, but I doubt I can be a Picasso. Hard work can certainly help children to improve their school performance, but it can mislead them to focus on something they have no talent in.

The cruel part of this belief is its denial of individual differences and social injustice. It teaches parents to blame their children for being lazy while they may have conditions that hinder their learning. It rationalizes discrimination against the less fortunate—children with learning disabilities or born into poverty under this belief are simply lazy and lacking grit. It also legitimizes the long discredited one-size-fits-all education model.

Furthermore, it supports the illusion many privileged have about their success. They believe they worked hard for their success while the fact is that they inherited the success from their parents. Abundant evidence shows that students’ academic success is much more related to their family background than grit!

*****

American education has problems, very serious problems, but Chinese schooling is not the answer. As I point out in my book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education in the World[9], the Chinese education is extremely effect, perhaps the best in the world, in producing homogeneous, compliant, and hard working people. At the same time, the system fails miserably at cultivating a diverse, creative, independent thinking, and inventive citizenry. The failure and success are the two sides of the same coin.

There is widespread discontent with education in China. The Chinese government has engaged in massive reforms to improve its education over the past few decades, but without much success, as Chu documents in her book. Why should American students experience Chinese education? Unless it wants a homogeneous and compliant workforce, America does not need Chinese education. American students do not need Chinese schools. They need better American schools.


[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-american-students-need-chinese-schools-1504882481?mod=trending_now_1

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-american-students-need-chinese-schools-1504882481?mod=trending_now_1

[3] https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-american-students-need-chinese-schools-1504882481?mod=trending_now_1

[4] https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-american-students-need-chinese-schools-1504882481?mod=trending_now_1

[5] http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-18450-004

[6] http://zhaolearning.com/2017/02/17/what-works-can-hurt-side-effects-in-education/

[7] http://zhaolearning.com/2016/11/29/it-must-be-chopsticks-the-less-reported-findings-of-2015-timss-and-explaining-the-east-asian-outstanding-performance/

[8] http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-29674-001

[9] http://zhaolearning.com/2014/11/02/latest-book-whos-afraid-of-the-big-bad-dragon-why-china-has-the-best-and-worst-education-system-in-the-world/

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