Thursday, May 22, 2014

China's English paradox shows up flaws in college entrance exams

May 22, 2014

By Adam Minter

NO CHINESE student can hope to attend a decent Chinese university without the ability to test well in the English language, if not necessarily to speak it well.

The distinction frustrates Chinese educational reformers. They have long pushed to do away with the country's exam-oriented education system, especially the notorious national college entrance exam, or gaokao.

But despite occasional, highly incremental changes meant to dissuade China's teachers from teaching to the test, English education - and education in general in China - remains nearly as regimented today as it was in the 1980s.

That helps explain why news that China's national education authorities plan to drop English from the gaokao in 2017 set off an intense debate over how and whether Chinese should be learning English in the first place.

Much of the discussion was overheated and went well beyond the bounds of what the reform package entails (English will still be taught and tested in Chinese schools).

Yet, the tone itself revealed a Chinese public eager to move beyond a test-driven education system that encourages rote learning to one that rewards actual mastery of a subject.

"Reducing the role of English in the gaokao doesn't deny the importance of English," wrote Mr Yuan Guangko in the Changsha Evening News. "It just means that we have serious issues with the traditional teaching method that need to be rectified."

The problem, he later explained, is simple: "English is learnt only for the purpose of taking an exam and only very few Chinese master it."

The Chinese passion for rote learning and exam-oriented education dates back to imperial times, and was resuscitated in the late 1970s to help Chinese reformers cull the large number of applicants for the limited number of places available in Chinese universities.

Thus, the gaokao was born, and in 1984, it acquired an English section.

The reason was simple: China was reforming and emerging, and English was, and is, the dominant global language of culture and business.

Indeed, were it not in the gaokao, English would still be a popular and necessary topic of study for Chinese anxious about their - and China's - ability to integrate into the global middle class.

The challenge for China's educators has been balancing the understandable desire to ace a one-time exam that can transform an entire family's fortunes, and the likelihood of the language being used in real life.

For now, at least, the balance tilts to the former, resulting in a plague of so-called "dumb English", whereby grammar is mastered on paper but is unable to be used properly.

Like so many problems in China, this one is often taken to symbolise broader issues with Chinese educational institutions that can produce internationally renowned test-takers (the best in the world, by some measures) but have yet to turn out a Chinese Steve Jobs. Reducing the role of English in the gaokao will not soon change those facts.

A widely read commentary by Mr Xiong Binqi, a renowned education reformer, made that point in the state-owned Guangzhou Daily. He noted that the real problem with China's education system is not any particular subject or teaching method, but rather a centralised college admission system that evaluates students largely on the basis of their gaokao scores.
"Many people feel that reforming the centralised admission system is impossible due to our national conditions," wrote Mr Xiong, referring to China's large population and relatively small number of places at its universities.

"So they put the focus on reforming certain subjects even though the public should be working to reform admissions."

Until that much more difficult reform is undertaken, China may remain home to some of the world's most accomplished - and tested - English-language grammarians.

Unfortunately, few of them will have the ability, much less the incentive, to speak the language.


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