SZ8X80205//The Myriad Transformations//City on the Fill: Beached Babes in Toyland

Once you have a house on the beach, what do you do there? You play. And where were the toys once made? In factories built along the old new coastline. Continue reading

礼貌 and 文明, thoughts

The difference between 礼貌 and 文明 matters because I bumped into a group in the Shekou Sihai park. They were members of 格 (RGLove). the charitable fund of the Shenzhen based high-tech company, 荣格科技集团. RGLove had brought in people from all over the country to explore and develop their civilization levels through Confucian studies. The goal, of course, is to intervene in the world by expressing correct relationships, that of course included 礼 which maybe 礼貌, but I’m not for sure. Meanwhile, inquiring minds want to know: just what does all this mean? Continue reading

2013 gaokao update

I find the gaokao process daunting: so many rounds of admissions, so many different variables — including hometown and quota requirements — to consider, so many practice tests and, in the end, so few points difference between students.

That said, the gaokao season began with registration (Dec 1-10, 2012), testing to estimate admission baselines, and has just completed mock exams (April 2-20). The mock exams give students, parents, and teachers an estimate of likely test scores, which can be compared to historic results in order to decide on which program to apply. We have entered the final phase of test preparation, during which time students take tests and refine their baseline estimates. On June 7 and 8. 36,633 students will sit for the exams in Shenzhen, unless, of course they have an abnormal pre-exam medical check-up. Students with physical ailments will be permited to take make-up exams on June 17-18.

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.

reading the old man and the sea (in shenzhen)

I am currently reading The Old Man and the Sea with two 16 year old Chinese high school sophomores. They are cousins. One is a “good” student, strong and sly in the self-protective way of students who know how to work the system, but do not reach the upper echelon of test results. The other is delicate and shy, a “top” student, who is being groomed to test into Beijing University, producing results (出成绩) for her school and family. The good student knows that unless she goes abroad, she will no doubt end up at Shenzhen University, no matter how much harder she works at school; fortunately, her parents can afford to send her anywhere and so she is not too sly, and her eagerness to model good student answers quickly gives way to assertive self-confidence. The top student already struggles with contradictory desires and ambitions. She yearns to study abroad, but her homeroom teacher has already begun pressuring her to stop studying for the TOEFL and to use her extra time more productively — taking practice gaokao tests or studying the junior year high school curriculum. What’s more, the child of divorce she knows that her mother can’t afford Chinese tuitions, let alone foreign and thus she must secure a scholarship  wherever she attends university.

We sit around a square table, tracking the relationship between the old man and the marlin. Santiago believes that his fish is out there, and his quest begins when he sights the purposeful circling of a man-of-war bird. His faith is rewarded and the contest engaged. As the fish pulls the man further out to sea, away from from the lights of Havana and known landmarks, the old man endures, charts his progress against the stars and his suffering, and the fish becomes more than a fish — first a friend, then a brother, more noble, but less intelligent, a brother who must be convinced that he is less than he who came to kill. It is a grand battle that does not end in glory, but the realization of hubris, “I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” the old man says to the marlin’s corpse, which has been strapped to the skiff and is being inexorably eaten by sharks. When the old man finally drifts ashore, all that remains is an 18 foot skeleton and the certainty of death.

I chose The Old Man and the Sea because, well misgivings about Hemingway notwithstanding, he knew his craft. His language is deceptively simple. Any sentence taken out of context seems ordinary, common even, but together his words sculpt moral landscapes that make exquisitely salient the brute masculinity and ultimately tragic consequences of lives lived against nature.

“Americans aren’t very peace-loving,” the good student concludes.

“Did the old man have faith in luck or faith in the sea?” the top student asks.

Thus, yesterday’s lesson transformed from a discussion about human limits into a conversation about how being human is culturally defined and experienced. The old man is not their old man, his fish is not their fish, and the sea that relentlessly pulls us out of our depth, that tests our forbearance and ultimately claims our soul, that sea does not figure their dreams. It may be a generational difference. But perhaps not. Certainly the new US passport is replete with pictures of men taking on nature — cowboys and seamen ruggedly occupying the western plains and Pacific waves, respectively. And that’s the point: the girls read with me because the good student’s mother is a friend and she has entrusted her daughter to me (and yes those words were used “交给你”) for old-fashioned Chinese purpose: edification rather than simple instruction. The goal of our bi-weekly meetings is not to improve English test scores or practice oral English, but rather close reading of novels, essays and poetry, to help the teenagers learn to navigate literary nuance elsewhere, which it turns out is also learning to simultaneously recognize oneself and one’s Other despite and across epic difference, which isn’t quite what Hemingway had in mind when he figured Man through his engagement with the Fish, but nevertheless where yesterday’s lesson ended.

power and authority in a chinese high school

Last night I heard a fifteen year old girl ask the rhetorical question, “Why are some suited to be a leader and others aren’t?” She had been comparing a teacher and a vice principal, both from her school. Apparently, the teacher had treated her badly and the vice principal had treated her well. Her disparaging remark neatly summarized a common understanding of power — people who treat others well deserve to be leaders. Implicit, of course, was the assumption that those who don’t treat others well don’t deserve to be leaders.

The question vexed me. On the one hand, she was correct to note the difference between authority and power as styles of leadership. The vice principal had helped her, which confirmed the legitimacy or the authority of his position. In contrast, the teacher had coerced her to do something she didn’t want to do. Coercion falls pretty unambiguously into the deployment of power category. On the other hand, these were not isolated events. They took place within a fraught social network in which the reason she had sought out her teacher and the vice principal came into play. At this level, both the teacher’s and the vice principal’s actions make sense. Continue reading

educational experimentation in shenzhen

For many years, I have noted the extent to which education has been closed off from the forms of social experimentation that characterize other aspects of Shenzhen society. Shenzhen was first to reform the danwei system, housing allocation, and even hukou laws. However, education has rigidly conformed to national standards — curriculum, methods, and goals, all have reflected national values and goals. When there has been experimentation, it has taken the form of international education — importing extant curriculums, such as the A-levels or American programs, rather than re-inventing Chinese schools. Even University Town (深圳大学城), which provides graduate education and research facilities has developed within a more standard academic model.

Yesterday, the opening ceremony of Southern Institute of Technology (南方科技大学) indicated a willingness on the part of both the national and municipal governments to invest in the search for new pedagogies. Differences with traditional colleges include: (1) size: SIT will offer small scale undergraduate education. The first class has only 45 students; next year, SIT will take in a class of 150, building until a cap of 400 students per class year. (2) recruitment: SIT recruits students through individual application rather than through the gaokao. (3) evaluation and graduation requirements: SIT has hired top academics to design classes and determine what course content should be. Moreover, at the level of specialization, students will be given the opportunity to design their own major. This is significantly different from the national standard, where undergraduate programs still reflect national standards. Moreover, there is little opportunity for students to study outside their major, let alone design their own. (4) residential dorms with house parents / teachers. SIT hopes to encourage a more familial atmosphere in its dorms and to provide life counseling for students as they adapt to academic life. Indeed, to my American eyes, SIT seems more like a liberal arts college than it does a university — Harvey Mudd, rather than a tradition technological institute like Qinghua or Cal Tech.

Four years to see what happens, at which point, presumably more cities and colleges will be given the opportunity to reform Chinese higher education.