Editor's note: J. Kristian and Barbara Pueschel visited China from July 2 to July 16. Kris is the former and founding headmaster of Bishop Seabury Academy. They moved from Lawrence in September to assume new educational roles in the West Indies.
Barbara and I like to say we lived in China for two weeks.
"You mean visiting," corrected a friend of ours upon hearing about our recent adventure.
However, it was not a visit in the usual terms; we were not the regular tourists-as-voyeurs for these 14 days. Other than our American hosts, we talked and traveled only with Chinese teachers and students.
We were afforded a unique, albeit short, opportunity to be a part of an educational Chinese culture in a dynamic region of China. We saw very few Westerners and talked with none other than our hosts.
Our friends, Roy and Margaret Bergeson, are visiting teachers at Suzhou Middle School, a public magnet school for the brightest seventh- through 12th-grade students in the city of 1.5 million people and metropolitan area of 5 million.
The Bergesons in the middle of their two-year commitment and school officials invited us to stay for two weeks to learn more about Chinese education.
In attempting to assess Chinese middle and high school education from our narrow vantage point, I am humbly reminded of the Chinese admonition about understanding the complexities of this culture: "Live in China a week, write a book. Live in China a month, write an article. Live in China a year, write nothing."
Suzhou Middle School was founded almost 1,000 years ago as a Confucian school to train boys and men for the Chinese civil service examinations. The Confucian temple complex is still adjacent to the school.
The large campus contains two lakes separated by a man-made hill with a pavilion, the Scholars' Retreat, on top all reminiscent of the country's historic gardens.
While a coeducational public school of 3,600 students, it is a provincial-level magnet school for Jiangsu Province, and students must be tested to enter.
Three hundred students from outside of the city board at the school (1,500 students competed last year for the scant 55 available boarding spaces). While we were there, 1,700 sixth-graders took competitive examinations to qualify for the 400 seventh-grade openings.
Students not attending magnet schools attend regular public schools, and after ninth grade may choose to attend a vocational school if they are not on a college-preparatory track.
Last year the seniors at Suzhou Middle School had the highest scores in the province for college entrance examinations. The school is also unique for its number of foreign connections. It has exchange programs with schools in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
As in Lawrence and the rest of America, school funding is a major issue for administrators. The head of the Suzhou Educational Commission, who supervises the province's public schools, told us that his primary job is to find more sources of funding. All families pay some tuition, and the amount varies depending on a number of factors, including test scores.
Barbara and I arrived July 2 at the school, with two days of classes left. This gave us time to witness the classrooms in action and yet spend the rest of our time visiting with students and teachers as we explored their city and their beliefs.
Having poked our heads into a classroom on the first tour, two girls came out to ask Bergeson, who had taught them English, if we would come back and address the class. All of the students in that section spoke English. I explained that I had been principal at a school and taught history, ethics and mathematics. I described Lawrence and Kansas University. They were particularly interested in learning about research KU conducted in such fields as biomedicine.
Some of them already knew about Jayhawk basketball, and considering that the basketball courts next to our apartment on campus filled up with students at 6:15 every morning, I thought some might be practicing to be scholar-athletes in their collegiate education abroad.
Cursory observations in the classroom, however, do not shed light on the differences between U.S. and Chinese education in this setting. The students are assigned to a classroom depending upon their test scores and remain there for all of their subjects during the year (except for science laboratories).
The teachers move in and out of these classes during the day. The students therefore have a greater sense of ownership of the classroom. In a sense, the teacher becomes a guest to the classroom, and this minimizes interaction between student and teacher. A personal relationship, for the most part, is absent.
Part of this is due to the effects of the surprisingly individualistic Chinese society. Students do not study together much; teachers often find it hard to work together, and there are few if any faculty meetings for mutual discussion of curriculum or pedagogy.
Teachers lecture; students memorize.
This is particularly debilitating for the humanities where opinions are not sought or offered. At least in science and mathematics, students can feel some involvement in problem-solving.
Teachers do not seem to be familiar with ways to involve students and each other, or other resources, to make their work better or easier. This may be in part a generational issue particularly for the older teachers, when citizens were told what to do and the minimum was expected of them beyond political conformity.
When I asked students, and some enlightened teachers, what they thought was wrong with Chinese education or what could be improved, all pointed to this problem.
"We need to update the curriculum," a teacher said. "It has remained the same too long. Our principals are not paying enough attention to the educational program. Our reputation remains strong only because the students are so strong."
The best and brightest
Bergeson teaches English in a more involving way, evoking student response and participation, and the students notice the difference.
"What do you like about Mr. Bergeson's class?" I asked.
Their responses: "We talk together." "We explore meanings." "He makes me think." "He uses humor." "I wrote my first poem."
It was difficult for me to understand how, in a country historically renowned for and culturally tied to its poetry, a high school student had never had the opportunity to test her own poetic creativity.
In spite of what many Americans would consider arcane teaching methods, the students at Suzhou Middle School achieve great results and are accepted at the finest universities in China and abroad. They would rank equally with any of the brightest and best-educated middle and high school students in the world.
Assigned homework only amounts to about half an hour a night, yet these students typically spend four hours preparing for the next day. They are authentically self-motivated. They do not understand why students at rigorous schools in America are assigned so much homework because they assume American students will need several hours for self-directed study.
The Suzhou Middle School students wear as a badge of honor the fact that they are assigned less homework than the other schools in the province and yet score the highest on standardized tests.
I asked a student what he planned to do with his summer now that the school year was over. "Study," he replied.
The only child
Each student we met came from a single-child household. It is a necessary goal for a country that has 1.3 billion people inhabiting a geographic area the size of the United States with only three-fifths of the farmable land.
The students believe that as the only representative of their family, they now carry a burden and feel pressure to succeed. They also look down the road to their adulthood when they and their spouse will be caring for two sets of aging parents with no other family member to help them.
However, some teachers see an erosion of traditional values less respect for authority and adults because the single child is now the center of the family's attention.
Perhaps the most interesting effect, however, is a boon for gender equality. Girls now are the center of their family's attention, receiving all of the resources and benefits that would have been divided among other siblings or would have been focused on the male offspring. They have equal opportunity in the educational system.
In a Communist country, we could not leave politics alone, and we therefore queried students and teachers about their political beliefs and opinion of the Communist Party. The responses varied widely and each person we talked with seemed to feel free to express his or her political views. We found no overwhelming ideological support for the party.
Those teachers who had joined the party or those students who planned to see it simply as a vehicle to enhance their upward mobility; in some fields, party members have greater opportunity for advancement. Even in these cases, the party is seen many times as corrupt or even ideologically evil.
One teacher said he was simply too opinionated to fit into party meetings and therefore did not join. Another could not understand why one paid dues to an organization and received nothing in return. One student perhaps the brightest in his class and quite artistic found the party abhorrent even though his parents were members.
Most striking to us, however, were the people, young and old alike. They blend industriousness, perseverance and creativity with deep roots to their ancient past.
If these extraordinarily bright, confident and self-directed students are examples of the future leaders in all professional fields in China, and if the Chinese economy we experienced continues unchecked and driven by 1.3 billion citizens, the future for this country indeed looks positive.
The genie is out of the bottle in China, and it is hard to imagine how any form of government that does not support this dynamic growth could put her back.