For several years I have been observing in the classrooms of a friend’s son—first in elementary school and most recently in his first year of middle school. Zheng Zheng heartily disliked elementary school. He would tell me at length about why lessons and his homework were boring, boring, boring. He hated the memorization and repetition, but also the pressure of competition with those students who are aiming for the very highest scores on tests and exams. He did the work he needed to do, but he seemed much more interested in building complex structures with Legos and experimenting with how to grow potatoes in pots propped on the ledge outside his parents’ bedroom window.
But junior high school is different. Not only does he like his more student-centered
teachers better, but significantly, the highest achieving students have been skimmed off to a different class. This leaves him among students who are still competitive, but not to such an exacting degree of perfection. When I last visited, I spent time in Zheng Zheng’s math and biology classes. (I selected the classes to observe when I arrived at the school; they were not preselected and practiced ahead of time.) There were twice as many students in a class than he had had in elementary school, but the atmosphere seemed more congenial, the pace less relentless. The teachers kept a steady rhythm with high expectations, and as usual, students needed to be completely prepared.
What does this mean? After school, it is not relaxed by any American standard. Zheng Zheng now comes home at 4:30 or 5:00, has a snack, and heads for his room to complete homework. This is the normal life of a Chinese student. He sets a timer, and at the end of an hour can come out for a 5-minute break; then back he goes for another hour and another. This was true even when new foreign friends visited with their children. He still could take only a 5-minute break each hour to get to know them. As far as going out to dinner with family friends, that can only happen on Friday or Saturday evening.
He’s in the equivalent of the 7th grade, and this is a relaxed year for him. His last middle school year will be much more intense.
I wrote about the college entrance exam preparation in Educating Young Giants and how Chinese students survive their final year of high school. I’m beginning to think that the 9th grade exam is just as bad because the students are so much younger.
Chinese compulsory and free education ends with 9th grade. If students wish to go to college, they must take a high school entrance exam. And competition in China is fierce. Zheng Zheng’s father said, “As a result, the students live a sort of secluded life their whole 9thgrade year. I mean, they are rarely seen outside their schools or apartments. Nobody is hanging out with friends. No TV, no storybooks, no games, no fun! And this goes on for a whole year. I don’t know how they survive the one-year imprisonment?”
Parents worry a lot about the pressure on their children. Plenty of stories circulate about middle school kids who disappear into Internet cafés where their parents can’t find them and about others who commit suicide. It’s impossible to nail down numbers as to how often this occurs, but Chinese parents worry continuously and try to provide support for their children to remain happy while also achieving at a level that will get them into high school.