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March 6, 2013

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'Happy education' makes parents unhappy

AS students head back to school after spring break, Shanghai education authorities again direct K-2 teachers to relax the pressure and drop the 100-point rating system. Parents are skeptical, reports Wang Jie.

Public kindergarten is supposed to be stress-free and grades 1 and 2 are supposed to be low-stress, low- or no-homework years of "happy education."

The Shanghai Education Commission has just repeated what seems to be an annual, springtime mantra, a call for "happy education" in the early years. However, few people pay attention and nobody is very happy.

There's no time to be happy because of all the pressure to get good grades, get into good schools, get high scores at the National College Entrance Exam, get into a good university and get a good job. And then go on to be a high-achiever.

And though everyone laments the loss of childhood and overworked children, everyone knows it's important to get an early start and it's almost impossible to get off the treadmill.

Kindergarten and early grades are time for learning and children entering school already knowing some numbers, characters, Chinese pinyin and English.

Teachers assume some knowledge, which puts children at a disadvantage if their parents haven't already taught them at home or sent them to training courses.

Of course, the situation is much more intense and pressured in private schools.

The pressure prompted the Shanghai Education Commission on February 18 to once again order that English and Chinese would be taught "from zero" starting from the first grade. Educators also ordered that primary schools scrap the 100-point rating/grading system for tests and replace it with ratings of "good, fair, pass and fail."

Back in 2006, authorities clearly stated that pre-school training in kindergartens should end.

"Never ever trust any order. It goes in one ear and out the other. If you believe it, you'll put your child at a disadvantage," says Li Siwen, mother of a 13-year-old boy.

Li says she feels guilty about her son because she had believed official statements. "When he was in the third year at primary school, the Education Commission said that all Olympic Math competitions would be canceled and any relevant scores would not be used as entrance criteria for local middle schools," the mother recalls.

"But I was totally wrong. I didn't send my son to any training classes after school. But what was the result? Top middle schools still selected candidates based on Olympic Math competition scores. Then my son could only enroll in a second-level school. Due to my credulity, he lost his chance," she says.

Other parents told her that similar statements are made every year in spring "as a useless defense of China's education methods," she says.

They are a reaction to the ongoing criticism about the academic burden on young students. "Each year a reporter could even use the same article without changing a word," she says.

There seems to be no other way to evaluate competing students than through scores. And it starts with getting into a top kindergarten, leading to a top primary school, top middle school, top high school and top university.

Deviation from the path can spell disaster.

"My daughter preferred painting when she was a small kid, but there's little time for her to develop this hobby as she enters the fourth grade," laments John Wu. "Her weekend is fully occupied with written Chinese, oral English and Olympic Math."

It's common to see Chinese children sent to different training classes after primary school, and even after kindergarten.

"I study mathematics, calligraphy, English and logical thinking once a week," says Wan Mengqi, a six-year-old girl at a public kindergarten. "Sometimes I don't have time for supper and my mom prepares a lunch-box for me. At first, I didn't behave well, because I can't sit still in class for a long time. But now I am used to it."

Wang's mother tells Shanghai Daily that her friends advised her to start sending her daughter to training classes as early as possible. "The earlier, the better. Now she is obedient when we tell her what to do. It's easier for her to accept a full study schedule as a little kid, otherwise, she may rebel when she develops her own will in the future."

Wang's mother is planning far into the future.

This is what Chinese children are facing: study, study, study.

Although many teachers think this is no way to nurture a child, they are caught up in the system and have to follow the trend.

"There is a natural growing process for all children and I am strongly against pre-school education," says Yu Wen, a primary school English teacher. "But you can't imagine the craziness of today's parents. Some even came to me and urged me to teach the class more English vocabulary outside the textbooks."

It's no wonder that "happy education" isn't fully accepted by many parents and school officials.

"We are the top primary school in the city, we need to guarantee our own status in the area. If you don't agree with our way of teaching, you can choose other more suitable schools. We have many candidates on our waiting list," says a primary school headmaster, who asked that he not be identified.

"Happy education? Now my son is happy, but he is sure to be unhappy in the future," says mother Li Siwen. "China has a huge population and competition for everything will become more and more fierce. True, I am now pushing my child to his utmost, but it is for his own good. I am a responsible mother, and I can't see him become a loser when he grows up."

Obviously, in the eyes of most Chinese parents, the life of anyone who isn't a well-paid professional must be miserable.

"Those are the values. A good job, a big house, high pay, a Mercedes-Benz - all these are essential for a successful person," says Feng Yalan, a consulting psychologist at East China Normal University. "But does the successful person himself feel happy? No one cares. At least he looks happy."

Feng also points out that Chinese people like to compare their lives with those of others, including friends, relatives and workmates. They compare the size of apartments, the location, the appearance and dress of a husband and wife, their careers. And, of course, the level of school where their child studies, and how well he or she performs.

"Some people find balance in these comparison," Feng says. "When someone feels inferior to others in one area, then he or she soon finds another target for comparison. Sometimes that's a child. Sometimes if parents don't speak good English, their child must be equipped with perfect English."

Thus, the comparisons between children are in reality comparisons between parents, since parents project themselves onto their children.

"I know this seems a bit insane, but I can't help it," says Wu Wenwen, a mother of a first-grader. "It's ridiculous that one or two points on my daughter's test would destroy my mood for a whole day, but it does."

Xu Wenwen, a first-year middle-school boy, says the class is tested weekly and monthly in Chinese, math and English.

"We call them 'weekly highs' and 'monthly highs'," he says. "My mother will have a list of every test, with average scores, top scores and lowest scores. Frankly, I'm pretty strong but I still feel pressured when my weekly high is below the average score. Not for myself, but for my mother. She is in menopause and it's better not to trouble her."

Obviously, the parents of the first and second graders may feel some relief if a classification system (good, fair, pass, fail) really does replace the 100-point rating system. There wouldn't be high anxiety over a few points.

"But what about the third, fourth and fifth graders? Nothing changes," says psychologist Feng. She quotes the wife of filmmaker Ang Lee, winner of this year's Oscar for best director, as saying: "I have no expectations of others, including my child, as long as they are doing what they like."

Feng says, "Maybe we Chinese parents should give some thought to her words."


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