This winter break, I had the privilege of traveling with the College of Education to spend three weeks in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Beijing studying the Chinese Education system. One of the first things I learned is that the stereotype of overcrowding and extremely dense population? Absolutely, wildly true. Between overly intimate bus rides with strangers and journeys on the subway with my face literally pressed into the glass window, it was made abundantly clear that there are just SO MANY PEOPLE and that obviously carries over into the school system as well.
Large class sizes are a huge fear of American teachers. We believe that large class size diminishes productivity and decreases students’ learning. Many of my fellow teachers I spoke to about my experiences actually gasped in horror when I said that I never taught a primary school class with less than 45 students in it. And yet, Chinese students constantly obliterate most other countries on tests such as the 2012 PISA. Whereas 55% of students from Shanghai scored above a level 5 on the Mathematics portion of the PISA, students from the United States presented a meager 9% scoring above level 5 (compared to the international average of 13%)1. Chinese classrooms are nightmarish to American educators, but yet, they are consistently producing students who test and problem solve at a substantially higher rate. Why?
The most clear difference I was able to observe from being there was the treatment of the education system by the government. The way it was explained to me by my instructor was:
If a school in an urban part of China says it needs a new library, the Chinese government will send them a new state-of-the-art library, a whole new set of books, and three projectors to put into it.
Education is an extremely high priority for both the government and the people. Even in kindergartens in Shanghai, classrooms are equipped with microphones, projectors, televisions, Macs for the teachers, and supplemental technology for the students. As a student in Illinois, my classrooms weren’t equipped with that sort of technology until I came to the University. It really makes all the difference, and was especially helpful for a bilingual lesson, and it made it much easier to connect to each individual student.
Obviously there are several other differences between these two countries’ education systems, but technology in the classroom definitely played a huge part in my educational experience in China, and I believe it could do a lot of good to extend that sort of mindset to US primary classrooms as well.