blue star blues

Yesterday, Ministry of Tofu translated a Southern Daily article about a Shenzhen elementary school teacher who marked students faces with blue stamps for misbehavior. They also published samples of weibo responses to this practice. No unexpectedly, there was general outrage over using humiliation as a means to correct student behavior. The article also mentioned that students received stamps for good behavior. Netizens were noticeably silent on this topic, no doubt because as long as I have been in Shenzhen, rewarding student behavior with stars and stickers has been standard practice in elementary schools.

In fact, public recognition and shaming are the most important motivators in the Shenzhen education system, where schools give and receive public recognition for “results (成绩)”. What’s more there is no question that we are speaking of test results, especially gaokao test results. At the high school level, municipal and district governments reward schools for the number of students sent on to first tier universities, in turn, the schools reward teachers for their students results, and teachers reward their students. In middle schools, public rewards are based on zhongkao, or high school entrance exam results with a similar system of bonuses for teachers who can produce results (出成绩) and students who get into top scores.

Given the importance of test scores their reputation and livelihood, Shenzhen teachers constantly seek ways to help students to improve their test scores. High school teachers run mandatory study sessions, while middle school teachers use classroom time to teach test taking skills. Moreover, most parents not only accept the primacy of test taking to education, but also arrange for their children to attend cram schools at night and over the weekend. In fact, many high school students often ask to attend cram schools in order to compete with their classmates.

Importantly, the system only works – Chinese schools infamously produce test-taking machines – to the extent that teachers and students accept test scores as their raison d’être. Consequently, elementary school schools and teachers have an awkward place in this system because it is their job to transition students from home life to the test life. At the same time and to a greater degree than their middle and high school colleagues, elementary teachers are expected to care for the total student, including their emotional and physical wellbeing. And there’s the rub: most young children and especially boys cannot sit still for long periods of time.

The restlessness of young bodies places elementary school teachers in a difficult position because in order to take tests, students must sit at desks for at least 40 minutes with an eye to eventually taking 2 to 2.5 hour tests that make up the gaokao. The 2012 Shenzhen gaokao, for example, took place on June 7 and 8. In the morning, candidates sat for 2.5 hours (Chinese on the 7th and humanities/science on the 8th) and in the afternoon they sat for 2 hours (humanities/science on the 7th and English on the 8th). The zhongkao was held on the 9th, with two 1.5 hour test periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Thus, more often than not, restless elementary students receive low test scores, their teachers are accused of ineffective pedagogy, and the schools are criticized for not doing their jobs.

In order to transform the restless body into a test-taking machine, elementary school teachers often use public recognition to encourage students. In fact, stickers and stamps are just two elements of a repertoire that also includes publicizing grades, issuing certificates and holding award ceremonies. During weekly flag raising ceremonies, top students receive public commendation and at the end of the year, the best students receive merit scholarships and their photos are hung in prominent places.

Obviously, this system creates pressure for the majority of students who cannot (by definition) earn the top scores. For these students, the desire to alleviate feelings of envy and shame sometimes become motivations to study. Or as often the case, middling students learn to live with second-rate status and find pleasure in non-academic activities. At the same time, teachers will attempt to use envy and shame to motivate students to overtake top students or to redeem themselves in the public eye.

Nor are teachers alone in celebrating top scores and denigrating poor results. Parental bragging about good students is rampant, while parental complaints about poor results are never simply good manners, but also strategies to motivate children to do better in school. Parents often negatively compare a child to another, even as some of the most brutal set downs entail parental complaints about lives wasted to support a student who has failed academically.

Point du jour: The blue star of shame on third grade faces are symptoms of a much larger problem that cannot be ameliorated by ridiculing the teacher herself or calling for different pedagogy. Rather, the system of Chinese education constitutes a problem so vast and entrenched that it is hard to know where to begin deconstructing it. Do we begin with the gaokao? Or with a more equitable system of job opportunities? Or allow for private schools that are certified even when they do not teach the national curriculum?

I am not posting this response to absolve the teacher from her responsibility in damaging her students’ self esteem. I am, however, posting this response to highlight the desperate hypocrisy of netizen complaints about blue stars. On the one hand, in a system that motivates through public recognition, shame is effective. Thus, issuing blue star demerits should be understood as a natural extension of extent pedagogy. On the other hand, until the system changes, parents and teachers find themselves in the desperate position of trying to force children to become test-taking machines in the gentlest manner possible. All recognize that the goal itself is violent, but hope getting there doesn’t have to hurt.

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