Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Saturday, March 27, 2004

Boom of after-school education in China

With peer pressure building up for most Chinese children on the way to a successful career, Wang Yi and Cui Ning delve into how the after-school education has boomed in the country.


With peer pressure building up for most Chinese children on the way to a successful career, Wang Yi and Cui Ning delve into how the after-school education has boomed in the country.

Weekends mean more work for Chinese children
The weekend is here; it's time to relax and have fun.

Well, maybe.

But thousands upon thousands of school children in the nation's capital hit the road again when school gets out on Fridays, not going to places to have fun, but shuttling between all kinds of after-school classes using a multitude of transportation methods -- taking the bus, sitting on the back rack of a bicycle with father or mother doing the pedaling, riding in the family car, taking the subway, or some times just hoofing it.

And the classes waiting for them are equally as numerous as the modes of transport -- math (the real killer, not the usual primary-school thing), English, painting, dancing, piano...you name it.

And their peers in other cities are all doing the same thing, at the same time.

Heavy schedule
Two tough times begin when regular school ends on Friday afternoon for Xiao Di, a grade-two pupil in a primary school in Beijing's Dongcheng District.

Here is her schedule:

Sightreading and music theory on Friday evening.

Math and English on Saturday morning.

Piano on Saturday afternoon.

Dance on Sunday afternoon.

Sunday morning free? No! It is reserved for homework assigned by her teachers at her regular school.

What is all this frenetic activity in aid of? Have the children, or rather, their parents, got a problem?

"It all boils down to one word -- competition,'' says Hong Chengwen, a pedagogy specialist at Beijing Normal University.

All this, especially the math and English, has something to do with preparing for junior high school in the immediate future.

But junior high is not the ultimate goal, nor is senior high, though both are vitally important stepping stones in the children's long road to getting established in a successful career.

It is university entrance, though still a long way away, that is behind all this week-end fuss today.

"A high score in the college entrance examination makes all the difference between the success and failure for a student. At least, a significant portion of the students -- and their parents -- think so; in spite of the fact that we educators and the educational authorities repeatedly trumpet the value of pluralistic approaches to success,'' Hong says.

The college entrance examination is a one-shot deal. You make it, you win. You don't, you lose -- with not much chance of a second chance, says Hong of the harsh reality the students must face.

But do art and music have anything to do with university enrolment? Yes, they do. Universities are being given more and more power over who they may take in as students, and many of these schools are eager to recruit artistically accomplished or athletically gifted students to help boost their image at music, art and sports events organized among universities. These "special-skill students,'' as they are referred to, therefore have a better chance of getting into prestigious universities, because their artistic or athletic skills can count as part of their entrance-exam scores.

But, earlier in the game, some "key" junior high schools also pick for enrolment the "special-skill'' pupils and those who excel in the "killer'' math and English courses, from the primary schools.

Beyond the competition factor, many dads and mums want their children to develop in an all-around way. This helps explain why so many kids are studying dance, singing, piano, painting and so on, even though it is obvious to all that only a very small number of the children have any chance of becoming professional artists or musicians.

Of course, the parents, beyond things like ultimate economic pay-backs, are not insusceptible to less tangible things such as personal feelings of satisfaction and pride.

"When parents hear their colleagues, or neighbours, or relatives spout forth: `Look, so-and-so's child has won a prize in a violin competition (or whatever). What a kid!' What more could they ask for from their children? Or, to put it the other way around, could there be any more satisfying way for the children to repay their dads and mums?'' Hong asks.

But the "student contingent on the road'' is still a bit too large, when you take into account that those who finally "make it'' constitute only a small portion of this massive corps.

"It works like this: One student's success story sets in motion a chain reaction, with two more kids being sent to after-school classes by their parents, then four, then eight, 16, 100, 1,000 ... until you have a rush,'' Hong says.

Right stuff?
Although not every child is the "right stuff," the parents tend to think so. "Confucius says, 'Rotten wood cannot be carved.' But all dads and mums believe their sons and daughters are sandal wood and can be carved,'' quips Hong.

Is the regular school failing to offer enough for the kids, leaving them half hungry intellectually?

"Standard school education is supposed to cater to all students, smart, mediocre, and anywhere in between. It turns out, not surprisingly, that the middle-level students benefit the most. Top students are often left unchallenged. So they want some more and turn to after-school classes,'' he says.

If the schools were to tailor their courses to the top students only, the majority would be left behind. "That would be unfair,'' Hong says.

Moreover, the school and teachers would be held accountable for the failure of the majority by the educational authorities.

The headmaster and teachers would be assumed to have done a bad job and their promotion and bonuses would be at issue, according to Hong.

Wang Congguang, headmaster of Tongze Senior High School in Shenyang, the capital of Northeast China's Liaoning Province, says that after-school classes turn into after-school one-on-one tutoring for some top students in the city when it comes to the final run-up to the university entrance examinations.

"The parents pay generously, sometimes dearly, to hire the best high-school teachers to give private tutoring to their children after regular school hours. What is in their minds is nothing but Peking University and Tsinghua University, the two most prestigious universities in the country,'' Wang says, "I'm not sure whether it is good or bad. But it's the reality.''

In view of all this, we have to accept that after-school education complements regular schooling, and is necessary, in Hong's opinion.

"All in all, its (after-school education) advantages outweigh the disadvantages,'' he says.

The worst scenario would be that your child fails to enter a good high school, or a good university; or fails to become a professional musician, or a painter, or a dancer, whatever. But the children have at least learned something and their potential has been tapped and their brains trained in the early stages of life. Besides, good tastes are cultivated while studying the arts or music, which can benefit people through their entire lives.

"Which person's life is richer, that of one who is fond of music or that of one who is ignorant of music?'' Hong asks.

The disadvantages are also there. Children's energy can be overtaxed, and too little room left for their own interests. Children should also have time left to play. And with their parents' will imposed on them, they are not given the freedom to learn on their own, something some educators protest very loudly about.

"To begin with, it is a matter of proper limits. You should never overstretch yourself, either by spending too much energy on one subject or taking too many courses. You would work yourself to death that way'' Hong says.

So, well-balanced after-school learning is what he advocates.

Room for creativity
"Make sure your child's head is not crammed with too much learning. When the brain is overstuffed, there is little room left for creativity,'' he says.

However, given excessive free rein, quite a lot of children would simply fool around after school, in his view.

"Meaningless play, or fooling around, will get you nowhere, not to a good high school, nor to a good university, much less a good future,'' he says.

Now comes the question of parents forcing their will on children and thus displacing the children's own interests.

"Imagine parents leaving their children entirely on their own as soon as they are old enough to walk and play, making no "arbitrary'' arrangements for their entry into kindergarten, primary school and so on -- just letting them do whatever they want. What would happen to the children eventually? More important, what should we call parents like this, who totally give up their parental responsibilities?'' he says, "Even lions teach their cubs and offer them guidance at every important stage of their development. Why shouldn't we human beings, who are considered to be at a higher rung on the ladder of evolution, do the same?''

Parental guidance, therefore, is necessary but it should never be allowed to go overboard, in his view.

After-school education is not only wide-spread in China but also in Japan, and maybe in other countries within the "Confucian cultural sphere,'' in Hong's words.

For example, there are many "education mothers'' in Japan -- housewives who devote themselves to their children's education, according to him. They accompany the children to school, pick them up when school gets out and then take them to private schools for extracurricular learning, day after day, week after week.

"Behind all this, again, competition looms,'' Hong says, "Japanese children are competing for the seven most prestigious universities in the country, Tokyo University and Kyoto University being the two most sought after. Then, secure a good job, then... the same story all over again.''

Besides practical considerations, the Confucian emphasis on education and traditional family values might very well be the root factor behind all this emphasis on extracurricular learning, in Hong's view.


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